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I AM MOST GRATEFUL for the opportunity of spending a year as Fellow of the 
Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, Cali- 
fornia, a most remarkable institution, already legendary in spite of its youth. 
The legends describe it variously, as the "rest cure," the "country club," the 
"think-shop," the "bee-hive"; for me, it has been the Abbaye de Theleme 
and its motto truly "Do what thou wilt." Without this year of complete free- 
dom, I could not have completed the book at this time, nor, indeed, have 
written this book at all. In fairness I should list as those to whom I owe a 
debt for help in this book all of my colleagues at the Center. There is nothing 
vague about this debt, though it was incurred in the apparently fugitive 
course of informal discussion, often mere conversation. I am sure that many 
of these colleagues could hear the echo of their voices almost anywhere in 
the course of this book. I am grateful to them, and to Ralph Tyler and the 
rest of the most permissive "administration" the irony always implied in 
such quotation marks here carries no trace of malice who made life so 
easy for us all. I wish also to express my gratitude to the many in the Stan- 
ford community with whom the Center lives in a fruitful symbiosis. 

More specifically, I thank David Landes, who lias read large parts of the 
original manuscript and made discerning criticisms, which I have tried hard 
to take into account; Roy Willis, my assistant, who did much, much more 
than mere leg work for me though he did a great deal of that, and most un- 
complainingly; Mrs. Jeanne Gentry and Mrs. Mary Hurt of the secretarial 
staff at the Center, who struggled successfully with my untidy manuscript; 


J. Elliott Janney, who, along with Lecky, showed me the value of the con- 
cept of the moral type or ideal; William Pullin, who set me at this difficult 
task; my secretary in Cambridge, Miss Elizabeth F. Hoxie, whose help as 
usual has been invaluable. 


Cambridge, Mass. 
27 October 195S 



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IN SEPTEMBER 1957 there appeared in most American newspapers a news 
photograph that showed a Negro girl in Little Rock, Arkansas, after a vain 
attempt to enter a white high school, leaving the premises with a group of 
whites trailing and abusing her. The face of one white girl was contorted in a 
shocking way; the Negro girl looked dignified and self-controlled. Commen- 
tators in the North were unanimous that the expression of the Negro girl 
symbolized the good and the expression of the white girl the bad; and com- 
mentators in the South were at least much disturbed by the picture, for they 
could not help making the same specific classifications of good and bad that 
their Northern colleagues did. My point here, however, is not so much the 
fact that in a certain sense moral goodness and moral badness were in this 
striking photograph made real, concrete, even "objective" or "universal." 
My point is, rather, that, dismissing for the moment the great philosophical 
problems lurking here, it is clear that no one could look at that photo- 
graph in quite the way he could look at a diagram of the occupation of 
Saturn by the moon that might well have appeared in the same issue of his 
newspaper or news weekly as did the photograph from Little Rock. Even the 
diagram of the occultation of Saturn might conceivably have stirred the emo- 
tions of an occasional reader, for it might have acted as a trigger to release a 
chain of thought-feeling about the vastness and impersonality of the astron- 
omer's universe and the smallness and helplessness of man, a chain for which 
much in popular contemporary culture supplies the materials. But the picture 
of the good Negro girl and the bad white girl (some editorial writers preferred 

A History of Western Morals 

to call the white girl "evidently neurotic," a fact again good grist for the 
historian of morals) roused very strong emotions indeed, emotions best de- 
scribed as those of moral indignation. 

One very obvious difference in the two cases cited above throws light on 
the special conditions under which moral emotions are commonly felt. The 
newspaper reader knew and felt at once when he saw the faces of the two 
girls that "something should be done about it," that he himself might do 
something about it, write a letter to the editor, to his congressman, join some- 
thing, pay dues, demonstrate, at the very least express an opinion. To no sane 
reader did the thought occur that he could do anything at all about the occul- 
tation of Saturn; in that form, the thought probably did not even occur to the 
reader who happened to be a devotee of the newspaper's daily column on 

Not very long ago, as historical time goes, almost everybody would have 
felt that he could, by himself or with the help of priest or magician, do some- 
thing about matters we now dismiss from our minds and our adrenals as 
concerns of the astronomer, the meteorologist, or some other expert who 
himself can do no more than follow Bacon's aphorism "Nature is not to be 
conquered save by obeying her." Call it growth of natural science, or of 
rationalism, or of common sense: something has pushed whole areas of our 
experience quite out of what we take to be our power, our will, even out of 
the customary field of action of any god or cosmic "force" capable of concern 
for humanity. 

A great deal, however, is left for us to do something about as moral beings 
inspired by moral emotions. Any newspaper, any newscast, will supply all 
that the most hopeful or the most indignant need for moral exercise. A group 
of determined pacifists set out in true Western style as witnesses to the eternal 
verities to sail from Honolulu to the banned area in the Pacific where Ameri- 
can authorities are testing atomic weapons; their little ketch is duly stopped 
only a mile or so from port by court injunction. A teen-aged girl stabs to death 
her divorced mother's lover and is gently handed over by the court to the 
custody of her maternal grandmother. Peruvian university students greet a 
good-willing Vice-President of the United States with a shower of vegetables, 
mixed with a few stones. The French government and people behave toward 
the Algerians as the British government and people forty years ago behaved 
toward the Irish. A Russian representative at the United Nations once more 
asserts that the United States is striving to subject the whole world to its 
capitalist tyranny; an American representative once more replies that it is the 


Russians who seek to subject us all to Communist tyranny. An Italian bishop 
is sued in a secular court for libeling a freethinking couple married in a sec- 
ular ceremony by declaring from his pulpit that the couple is living in sin. 
American automotive engineers add ten more pounds of chromium and 
twenty more unneeded horsepower to their next year's models, and the com- 
pany business executives, who, as a liberal weekly points out, are the masters 
of the engineers and the real villains in the case, add another two or three 
hundred dollars to the price of their cars. A newspaper editorial points out 
that Americans spend more money on cosmetics than they do on books. A 
sociologist in an interview gives our society twenty years at most before its 
final destruction. 

I have in the above paragraph, which could be indefinitely expanded, 
mixed the high and the low, the dignified and the undignified, quite without 
ironic intent. It is surely a good rigged random sample. I should be aston- 
ished if anyone could read it in this mid-twentieth century without experienc- 
ing at least a trace of what I have called moral indignation. The reading, and 
the train of associations set off by the reading, would surely also bring 
to many at least a trace of moral satisfaction. The historian of morals in the 
West, however, is pretty well forced to conclude from the record that there 
is in this human world of ours more moral indignation than moral satisfaction, 
that man as moralist is essentially a complainer. It is always easy to 
recognize man the moralist: the sequence is clear to an observer, and can be 
clear to the willing self-analyst. First the experience another French cabinet 
falls; then the emotion, which may run from tired annoyance to refreshed 
anger; then the blaming, the censuring these damn fool French, why can't 
they . . . ; then the doing something about it we ought to. ... Note 
carefully that in this sequence there is little room for any attempt to "under- 
stand" why that cabinet fell in the first place. 

Yet this analysis of the moral process may well be itself in fact, it is 
stained with our inescapable human nature, or at least with the nature of an 
"intellectual." For the historical record is for the most part made by the kind 
of people we must call intellectuals; and intellectuals live, succeed, shine, by 
making us all aware of how much is wrong with the world. This statement 
would appear to be particularly true of intellectuals in the twentieth-century 
Western world. 

Yet it will not do to exaggerate the gap between the intellectual and his 
fellow men. There are many definitions of man, from the "forked radish" 
and the "animal with opposable thumbs," to the "image of his Maker" and 

A History of Western Morals 

the "animal that knows it is going to die." Not the least far-reaching would 
be simply: the moral animal. For though we may grant to the physiologist 
that the emotions of man are bodily functions of a kind that go on also in 
other animal bodies, it seems unlikely that any other animal is stirred to 
fear, or anger, or contentment by any awareness of a difference between right 
and wrong, justice and injustice. We may fashionably amend the old phil- 
osophic tag to read, "Nothing in the intellect unless previously in the 
endocrines," but there in the intellect stands, nevertheless, the moral inherit- 
ance of our species, the bewildering, fascinating, unavoidable rights and 
wrongs of our past and present. 


It should be clear indeed that our subject is full of difficulties that have to be 
called philosophic. The semantic grace that begins so many books in these 
days seems especially needed in a history of morals. I shall try throughout 
this study to make consistent use of three closely related words which I shall 
now define, not as all readers would define or understand them such 
unanimity about the full meaning of words of this sort is wholly impossible in 
the modern Western world but not, I trust, in any erratic and private way. 
At least they are all exceedingly common words, so common that not even the 
pure in taste can object to them. 

First, I shall use the word "conduct" to refer to the reported actions of 
human beings, alone or in groups. The historian, of course, must almost 
always deal with reports, usually written reports, of the actions or events with 
which he is concerned; such reports vary in accuracy, but the historian has 
at his command ways of testing their accuracy, ways not identical with those 
of the laboratory experimenter but good enough so that he is justified in us- 
ing to describe these actions the blessed word "facts." 1 The actions that make 
up what I shall call "conduct" cover the whole range of human capabilities, 
from words to blows and detonations of bombs. Perhaps the word "con- 
duct" has some overtones of formality, even artificiality: "conduct in the bed" 
is a phrase that hardly comes naturally. "Behavior" is certainly a very close 
synonym, and may seem preferable to some. But in the form "behaviorism" 
the word refers to a specific set of doctrines or dogmas in the history of 

1 1 forbear further discourse on the nature of "facts," which we all know nowadays is 
less obvious than our grandfathers thought it. To the interested reader I recommend 
a meaty little essay of L. J. Henderson's, "An Approximate Definition of Fact," Uni- 
versity of California, Publications in Philosophy, XIV, 1932, p. 179. 


formal psychology, to the work of a whole school which goes far beyond 
reporting or describing human conduct, which does, indeed, try to explain and 
control human conduct. I wish to use the word "conduct" as far as possible 
in a descriptive, not an explanatory, sense. But the distinction between these 
two words, which both denote human doing, is perhaps near to hairsplitting; 
both "conduct" and "behavior" quite readily take those indispensable adjec- 
tives "good" and "bad." 

Second, I shall use the terms "ethics" or "ethical principles" to refer to 
the statements men make about what their conduct, or the conduct of others, 
or of both, ought to be. Only the very self-conscious semanticist will try to 
pursue that word "ought" further; it is surely one of the clearest of words, 
usually, one hopes, clearer to the individual using it than "is." Much of the 
time I shall use the words "ethics" and "ethical" to designate some specific 
part of the great and varied body of formal philosophical writing that com- 
monly goes under that name and that is well-enough known in the United 
States as the subject matter of college courses in ethics. Here a caution is 
necessary. Philosophers have built up a tradition that, especially in the field 
of ethics, commonly does not list as philosophers many writers who seem to 
a layman to have philosophized. Nietzsche, for example, usually makes the 
grade as a philosopher, perhaps because he was a German and left behind 
him fragments of a book, The Will to Power, which he may have meant to be 
what the philosophers call a systematic treatise; but Pascal does not often 
make the grade, nor does Rousseau; and La Rochefoucauld almost never 
makes it. These, it seems, are "men of letters," and members of a nation 
known for its lack of philosophic depth. La Rochefoucauld, in particular, is 
usually labeled a "moralist." I shall here pay little attention to such distinc- 
tions, and shall treat as "ethics" all expressions of opinion as to how men 
ought to behave, from the Mosaic code through folk proverbs and newspaper 
columns of "Advice to the lovelorn" to the Ethics Mathematically Demon- 
strated of Spinoza, which last is a singularly lofty flight of pure philosophy. 

Third, I shall use "morals" and "morality" in a somewhat less obvious 
sense, but one that seems to me to underlie the original Latin mos, moris and 
its descendants in our modern Western languages. If "conduct" is used con- 
sistently to indicate what men do, and "ethics" to indicate their appraisal of 
the value of their actions, then "moral" may be used to sum up the whole 
human situation involved in the existence of both conduct and evaluation of 
conduct, of both the "is" and the "ought" in human awareness of past, pres- 
ent, and future. Our moral awareness is a state of tension familiar to us all, 

A History of Western Morals 

no matter what our religion or our philosophy, a state of tension summoned 
up in us all by the common-sense word "conscience." I realize that there are 
all sorts of difficulties about this use of "morals." For one thing, such a use 
implies that what I call "ethics" has some effect on what I call "conduct," and 
even that what I call "conduct" has some relation to what I call "ethics"; both 
these conclusions have been rejected by some thinkers, simplifiers, it is true, 
and, like the solipsist, at the extreme or lunatic fringe of philosophic thought. 
Most of us would agree that there is a relation between human thinking, even 
about ethics, and human doing. About the nature of that relation there has 
always in the West been great dispute. 

Conduct, ethics, morals are not here used to stand for "real" entities, but 
as instruments of analysis, that is, of convenience. To fall back as one must in 
such matters on a figure of speech: conduct, ethics, morals are not like so 
many separate islands in the sea; they are more nearly like, but not just like 
chemical elements which combine in various proportions to make compounds, 
elements moreover never or rarely found in a pure state in nature. In partic- 
ular I wish to be firmly understood as not here maintaining that writers I have 
classed as primarily concerned with ethics are therefore concerned with 
"mere" words, with something therefore not quite real; nor do I maintain 
that such writers are wholly concerned with the "ought," with standards of 
value, and pay no attention to the "is," to the ways in which men establish 
and employ standards of value. The great systematic philosophers, an Aris- 
totle, an Aquinas, a Locke, have much to say about conduct as well as about 
ethics, and about the resolution of these two in morals. Even in the sermon, 
where the preacher is making a special use of human awareness of the 
"ought," there is often a great deal of information for the historian interested 
in the "is." There are, of course, degrees of possible concern with "pure" 
ethics and with "pure" conduct. If you want to feel the difference between 
the two extremes, read Kant's Metaphysics of Ethics, or his What Is Enlight- 
enment?, and then turn to any clinical case history, from one by Hippocrates 
to one by Freud or to the work of any good naturalist. 2 

We may indeed go further into metaphor. Morality is at once a part of 
man's being and the whole of it. The easy metaphor is the familiar one of a 
strand, a thread, interwoven with others in a fabric that would not be the 
fabric it is without all the threads. But the part of morals in the human whole 

^Emphatically not to naturalists who figure in most histories of literature, and espe- 
cially not to Thoreau, who could never look at a bird without seeing the universe 
and Henry Thoreau. 


is not neatly separable by the mind's eye as a thread. In a less dignified 
figure of speech, the moral is simply an ingredient in a mixture, a dish, in 
which the ingredients as we experience them are inextricably melted or 
mingled, not to be separated in this real world, but only in the unreal world 
of analysis at most, to be subtly distinguished one from another by our 
moral taste buds. 

Thus the moral in our human situation is not to be separated from the 
rest of our universe; yet the good we seek as moral beings is not, under 
analysis, the true we seek as thinking beings, nor is it the beautiful we seek 
as emotional beings. Our conventional vocabulary separates these as well as 
they can be separated. Our universe of moral discourse does not I nearly 
wrote the revealing "should not" deal with terms like "truth," "common 
sense," "reason," nor with terms like "beauty," "taste," "manners," "civil- 
ity," but with terms like "good" and "evil," "justice" and "injustice," "strug- 
gle," "victory," "defeat," "conscience," "guilt" As moral beings, we all 
bear an uneasy burden from which most of us can hardly escape with 
serenity by making truth, beauty, and justice quite synonymous or by 
separating them out in closed compartments of meaning. In particular, we 
cannot avoid thinking about morals, yet we cannot, peace to Spinoza, think 
about them, demonstrate them, after the manner of mathematics. 

I shall try to adhere to the common use in matters of morals; "good" 
evaluates conduct or ethical standards as morally desirable, "bad" evaluates 
conduct or ethical standards as morally undesirable. Both words have also 
a common descriptive use, nicely brought out in a casual remark about a 
young professor who could never be relied on to keep appointments or serve 
on committees or in general do the little drudgeries expected of him: "Is 
Blank really good enough to be that bad?" Modern ethical philosophers have 
been very conscious justifiably so of the semantic difficulties of these and 
other words the moralist has to use: "right," "wrong," "just," "unjust," 
"duty," "conscience," and a great many more. 3 

The historian of Western morals must record a very wide range, a whole 
spectrum of specific contents of recorded conduct and recorded ethics. He 
must also note that there is a persistent belief in the West that in spite of this 
range in conduct, for example, from that of St. Anthony to that of the 

3 The reader will find helpful here C. L. Stevenson, Ethics and Language, New Haven, 
Yale University Press, 1945; Richard M. Hare, The Language of Morals, Oxford, Ox- 
ford University Press, 1952; C. D. Broad, Five Types of Ethical Theory, New York, 
Harcourt, Brace, 1930. 

A History of Western Morals 

Marquis de Sade; in ethics, from the belief that war is always bad to the 
belief that it is always good there is really both in conduct and in ethics 
a kind of center, norm, or average which does not vary much with place or 
time. Here again, however, there is no full agreement as to -just where the 
center lies, as to just what ordinary human nature and ordinary human 
capacities really are. All this will be clearer as our story progresses. 

But first I must, speaking as historian, as recorder, note that from the 
very beginning of Western history in Greece and in the Ancient Near East 
there have been constantly recurring problems in ethics that have not in three 
thousand years been solved to the common satisfaction of all men. Can the 
individual really choose between doing what he thinks good and what he 
thinks evil? Is it right for the individual who happens to be born a Moslem 
to have several wives, but wrong for the individual who happens to be born 
a Christian? Does the kind of thinking you who are struggling with these lines 
are now doing really affect your conduct? These are the old problems, indeed, 
one may say the old chestnuts, of freedom of the will, ethical relativity, and 
the place of reason in human conduct. Socrates and his friends threshed them 
all out long ago; one may say that in the first book of Plato's Republic the 
principal ethical positions Western men have taken are already clearly stated. 
The voice of Thrasymachus, who said that justice is what you can get away 
with, but said so rather more elegantly than this, has echoed down the ages; 
but so, too, has the voice of Socrates, who said much nicer things much more 
nicely about justice. 4 

Now there is a sense in which to say that these and similar problems have 
not been solved, that men still give the sorts of attempted solution to them 
given millennia ago, is to take a definite philosophical position toward them. 
I have above tried to take refuge in my role as a mere historian, a mere 
recorder, but something in me perhaps, appropriately enough in a history 
of morals, my conscience compels me to admit that no refuge will do in the 
end. The historian, like the scientist, can keep awareness of these and similar 
problems out of his daily work; but both historian and scientist are human 
beings, and ethical, indeed metaphysical, concern is part of the human con- 

Some of the popularizers of a current of contemporary philosophy for 

4 Polemarchus, Thrasymachus, Glaucon, Adeimantus, and Socrates himself do not, of 
course, exhaust the range of ideas on ethics, but they do sketch the outlines of what 
would be the range of such ideas in the West, from confonmsm and traditionalism to 
pragmatism, opportunism, and idealism; they set up the spectrum in its broad lines. 



which there is no good name, for "logical positivism" will not quite do, have 
come close to a kind of skepticism, even nihilism, about ethical propositions. 
Mr. Stuart Chase, who in his successful Tyranny of Words (1938) would 
have us say "blah-blah" instead of, for example, "natural rights," comes close 
to the proposition often attributed to the logical positivists: that if any kind 
of statement cannot be tested by an "operation," essentially like that done 
by a natural scientist seeking to verify a theory, it is "nonsense," and had 
better never have been entertained in the mind. We cannot here attempt to 
disentangle the many complexities of this semantic problem as it appears to 
our age. Suffice it to note that there is, if only among popularizers, not among 
true philosophers, a current tendency to put all statements not basically like 
those the scientist makes ("empirically verifiable," if you wish, although 
these, too, are weasel words) in one class of "nonsense," "drivel," somehow, 
unfortunately, communicable almost as if it were rational sense. 5 

The "blah-blah" or "no-nonsense" school of popularizers are, no doubt, 
extremists; and they do not, of course, by any means dismiss from their con- 
cern and that of their readers the age-old, insoluble, unavoidable, 
essential problems of philosophy they claim they are trying to get rid of 
entirely. But they make us all a little more self-conscious about our attitudes 
toward these problems, I feel that I owe the reader some account of my own 
attitudes toward most emphatically not my solution of some of these 
recurring problems of ethics, and, therefore, of morals. These attitudes are 
so affected by my training as a historian that I shall hardly seem to the phi- 
losopher to do more than beg the question, for I start with the assertion that 
on these great problems many, perhaps most, thoughtful men in the West 
hospitably accept and cherish simultaneously in their conscious, not just in 
their unconscious, minds, logically quite incompatible conclusions. For the 
modern Westerner exposed to any natural science, from popular to pure, it is 
impossible not to believe in some sort of determinism; but it is also impossible 
for him not to believe in some sort of freedom of the will. He therefore 

5 One example among many. The discoverer of "Parkinson's Law" comments on the 
famous passage in the Social Contract in which Rousseau states his problem as finding 
"a form of association ... by means of which each, coalescing with all, may never- 
theless obey only himself and remain as free as before" as follows: "There might be 
no great harm in reading this piece of eighteenth-century rhetoric provided that the 
antidote were to follow. The student who is advised to read drivel should at least be 
warned that it is drivel he is being asked to read " C. Northcote Parkinson, The Evo- 
lution of Political Thought, London, University of London Press, 1958, p. 10. Profes- 
sor Parkinson's antidote to drivel turns out to be a mixture of prehistory, social 
anthropology, and comparative history, taken in a fine mood of faith in a real world 
of no-nonsense. 

A History of Western Morals 

believes in both, believes that he has a will, indeed is a will, not to be further 
defined in physiological terms, which makes "free" choices, and also that there 
is an unbroken and unbreakable chain of cause and effect in the universe, of 
which he is part. 6 

It is true that there are various systematic ways of thinking by which a 
Westerner can soften, disguise, or, if you prefer, reconcile, these logical 
opposites. He may, for instance, believe in "determinism" but reject "fatal- 
ism." Theology, metaphysics, ethics, common sense, all contribute to this 
process of reconciling logical opposites, a process indispensable for almost 
all of us. The Vulgdrpositivismus which declares that such activity of the mind 
is quite unprofitable, mere nonsense, cuts itself off further from humanity 
than does the most otherworldly of idealisms. Indeed, a system like the fa- 
mous Hegelian dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, though no "operation" 
approaching that of the natural scientist can be performed on it, is a kind of 
recognition that human beings in this real world must eat their cake and have 
it; all of us are common-sense Hegelians and common-sense Benthamites 
when we need to be. 

So, too, with the old problem of ethical relativity. It was impossible even 
for the Greeks, sure as they were that their own ways of living were the only 
right ones, to deny that their barbarian neighbors had different ways. The 
first few generations of anthropologists, not unmoved by the pioneering sci- 
entist's desire to expose the errors of accepted belief, were perhaps too insist- 
ent on the respectability in Africa or New Guinea of conduct shocking to 
nineteenth-century Western man: "The Wadigo regard it as disgraceful, or at 
least as ridiculous for a girl to enter into marriage as a virgin." 7 Indeed, it 
has never been possible for a sane Westerner to deny that human conduct 
showed unmistakable variations in different times, places, and even indi- 
viduals, and, furthermore, that the justification or evaluation of such conduct, 
that is, ethics in our sense, also varied widely and unmistakably. Yet again 
it has been difficult for most Westerners to accept full radical ethical rela- 

6 Denis de Rougemont has put with epigrammatic neatness what I have been trying to 
say: in these "necessary tensions" (he cites "transcendence" and "immanence," "free- 
dom" and "authority," and others, much like those I here bring up) "the two terms 
are true, contradictory, and essential" Man's Western Quest, New York, Harper, 
1957, p. 116. Italics mine. Also Arthur Koestler, "for we are moving here through 
strata that are held together by the cement of contradiction." The Invisible Writing, 
Boston, Beacon Press, 1954, p. 349. 

7 E. Westermarck, Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, 2nd ed., London, Mac- 
millan, 1917, Vol. n, p. 422, quoting from O. Baumann, Usambara (1891). 



tivism, that is, the doctrine that right and wrong are for each individual what 
at a given moment he thinks or feels they are. The polar-opposite doctrine, 
that right and wrong are absolute, universals unaffected by what we call time 
and place, the same always and everywhere, has surely been at least as far 
from ordinary Western acceptance. Nevertheless, some residual belief that the 
distinction between good and evil is not one rooted solely in human conven- 
ience and human history, but has something to do with the structure of the 
universe, has in our world survived even among those who have given up the 
Judaeo-Christian belief in a God who made both good and evil. Most West- 
erners today would surely be reluctant to accept the concept of "evil" as on 
a level with the concept of "weed," neither more nor less absolute, neither 
more nor less built into the structure of the universe, neither more nor less 
a matter of our convenience. 8 

Our third old chestnut of a problem, though it, too, is as ancient as the 
Greeks, looks today a bit fresher, which is to say that the debate about it is 
livelier than that about free will or ethical relativism. The unpalatable ex- 
tremes are there: the intellectualist doctrine that at least potentially men 
can reason logically, even, as Spinoza held, mathematically, about the dis- 
tinctions between right and wrong, arrive at demonstrably correct and per- 
fectly communicable conclusions about them, and, finally, make their conduct 
conform to the results of their reasoning; and the anti-intellectualist doctrine 
that reason is in these matters of conduct either quite helpless, or at most the 
"slave of the passions," that all reasoning is rationalizing, that even if phi- 
losophers could agree and they cannot agree as to standards of right and 
wrong, even the philosophers, let alone the rest of us, would still follow drives, 
urges, impulses, instincts, sentiments, species-specific acts, conscious and 
unconscious. Though perhaps, in terms of metaphysical concern, this question 
of the role of reason in morals is as insoluble as our others, the inevitable 
compromises men make about it in their own minds are in these days at least 
fairly obvious. Few of us can dismiss the work of two generations of psy- 
chologists and go back to what really was the common belief of the eighteenth- 
century Enlightenment, that is, that only bad environment, especially faulty 

8 1 make the above statement in full awareness that it is infinitely debatable, and can 
be misleading But I do think it is a statement that can help focus the problem of 
ethical relativity. Thistles and roses sub specie aeternitatis perhaps even sub specie 
Linnaei are not what they are to gardeners. But liars and honest men? Or even Hitler 
and Lincoln? Surely in ethical matters are we not reluctant to think of ourselves as 
mere cultivators of our gardens? 


A History of Western Morals 

education, mistaken religious training, and bad political and economic insti- 
tutions, prevents all men from thinking alike on ethical matters, and from 
adapting their conduct to the results of their thinking. We agree, if not with 
the Freudians, at least with much of Freud, that the obstacles to clear think- 
ing and to acting in accord with such thinking are much more complex and 
persistent than our predecessors thought they were. We are alerted to the 
presence everywhere of rationalizing, wishful thinking, propaganda, preju- 
dice, brainwashing, motivational research, and other evidences that the world 
is not yet the world Condorcet foresaw, nor even the world young H. G. Wells 

Yet a chastened belief in the uses of the instrument of thought has sur- 
vived modern anti-intellectualism. Indeed, in precisely the field of ethics 
we are here concerned with, our century has seen the rise not, perhaps, of a 
"school" in the old sense, but of a number of writers on ethics who though 
they might not like it put this way seem to have as a common aim the 
salvaging of a place for reason in the establishment of ethical standards for the 
effective guiding of human conduct. 9 It is no longer fashionable, and probably 
was never quite possible, to "think with the blood." We shall, in short, here 
concern ourselves with ethics, with "ideas" about good and bad, right and 
wrong, with "values," with no worries lest we are dealing with "mere froth 
on the surface of the waves," nor even with "mere superstructure." Morality 
is a relation between ethics and conduct in human societies, a relation that 
always includes what we may here unworriedly call "thinking," or, more self- 
consciously, some sort of activity in the frontal lobe of the brain. 

Whether this is a causal relation and if so what kind of causal relation are 
most certainly questions of the kind we have above called "old chestnuts." In 
its simplest form, one much influenced by popular, or, rather, pseudo-, 
Marxism in our day, the question can be put: Do ethics that is, ideas about 
what a person's conduct should be cause, or initiate, or at least affect that 
person's conduct? I have elsewhere suggested that such questions, if not, 
perhaps, to be dismissed as "meaningless," as the purveyors of popular 
semantics like to do, can at least be bypassed with profit by the historian, 
much as the engineer and, one suspects, a good many physicists bypass 

9 C. L. Stevenson, Ethics and Language, is a good sampling, and through its notes and 
references a good guide to recent work in the field. See also the list of "pertinent 
literature" in Arthur Pap, Elements of Analytic Philosophies, New York, Macmillan 
1949, pp. 64-65. ' 



certain questions of an "ultimate" kind as to the nature of matter, energy, and 
the like. 10 

A concrete case should be useful here to dismiss this problem, and pre- 
pare the way for a somewhat different problem, our sources of information 
about the conduct of men in the past, which will concern us in the next section 
of this chapter. In the troubles over desegregation in the South of the United 
States, troubles touched off by the Supreme Court decision of 1954 that seg- 
regation in public schools is unconstitutional, it is quite clear, is, indeed, a 
"fact," that a number of Negroes in many Southern towns and cities want 
desegregation and are actively organized to try to get it. They are refusing 
to accept a specific kind of social and political inequality. But that kind of 
inequality is condemned as wrong in almost all the sources of ideas about the 
nature of our society available to the educated or partly educated Negro. 
Certainly there are other reasons for the conduct of these Negroes than their 
training in American ethics (I am here deliberately using these terms as I 
have earlier defined them) . But surely is it not absurd to expect that they can 
be so trained, exposed in a society like ours to creeds and codes like the 
preamble to the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the like, 
and to the constant examples of the American drive toward many specific 
kinds of social equality with which all our cultural life is filled, and then 
calmly accept the status of an Uncle Tom? 11 Surely can we not now reject 

!0 In my The Shaping of the Modern Mind (New York, New American Library, 
1953, p. 9), I suggest that the automotive engineer does not ask whether the spark 
or the gasoline "causes" the motor to run, or whether spark or gasoline is more "im- 
portant," or "fundamental." Applied to the present problem of the relation between 
"ideas" and "interests," "drives," "material conditions," "sentiments," this analogy no 
doubt presents all the shocking weaknesses of such imprecise uses of the human mind. 
But T do not mean to suggest that the "ideal" is the spark and the "material" the 
gasoline, nor vice versa. All I mean to suggest is that as for the engineer no internal 
combustion engine without both gasoline and spark, or their equivalents, as in diesel 
engines, so for the historian: he can fearlessly assert that nothing happens in history 
without the presence of both ideas and material conditions. In concrete instances of 
human conduct, it is no doubt useful to try to estimate the part played in such con- 
duct by intellectual elements and the part played by emotional elements; but no for- 
mula will work for an average or generalized case. Compare Stevenson, "To ask 
whether beliefs in general direct attitudes in general, or whether the causal connection 
goes rather in the opposite direction, is simply a misleading question." (Stevenson, 
Ethics and Language, p. 5.) 

11 1 had just come to review and possibly revise the above sentences when I found the 
following: A Negro businessman in Montgomery, Alabama, comments: "We've got 
the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the Bill of Rights, the United States 
Supreme Court, American democracy and democratic principles and sentiment, Re- 
publican and Democratic sympathy, national politics and world history all on our 
side." New York Times, December 29, 1957, Section VI, p. 38. 


A History of Western Morals 

the despairing innocence of an Orwell? Even with constant repetition from 
above, the Orwellian slogan "All men are created equal, only some are more 
equal than others" will not always work on the underdog. Motivational 
research has not yet quite eliminated, or explained, moral man. 

It is tempting to go on to a much broader generalization that ideas about 
human equality, the "dignity of man," and the like have played a part in 
other risings of underdog groups, at least since with the Stoics and the 
Christians such ideas clearly enter the record. But the record of what the 
underdog thought and felt is so incomplete! We know that most members of 
the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are aware 
of the ideas of Thomas Jefferson on human equality, that they feel the kind 
of pressures toward egalitarianism our culture exerts. But we have no infor- 
mation as to what went on in the mind even of a leader like Spartacus in the 
so-called slave revolt of the first century B.C. We know that he was a Thra- 
cian, perhaps enslaved by force, and that he was clearly a leader, a "su- 
perior." But had he ever heard of Stoic ideas on human equality, which, 
though stated somewhat coldly and abstractly, are clear and far-reaching? 
Had his followers any glimmering of such ideas? We just do not know. It is, 
however, most unlikely that thousands of Spartacists could have held to- 
gether as a fighting group unless some of them had "ideas" about what they 
were doing there in their fortified camp in the crater of Vesuvius. 

Even for the Middle Ages we do not have by any means the kind of in- 
formation needed to be certain that Christian ideas on equality played a part 
in risings of the underdogs. But there are intriguing straws of evidence, on 
which the not-too-cautious mind can build. The well-known slogan of the 
English Peasant War of the fourteenth century 

When Adam delved and Eve span 
Who was then the gentleman? 

would seem to be evidence that the Christian holy writings were playing then 
the revolutionary role they have so often played and which is so obviously 
there, built into them. With the sixteenth century we do, however, begin to get 
a great deal of the necessary information about what the active participants 
in social and political movements wanted. 

I have dwelt perhaps too long on this problem of the part "ideas" play in 
human conduct; but I confess to harboring the hope that some of my readers 
may at least worry it over a bit in their minds. For it seems to me that most 
educated and interested Americans, or, at any rate, many such, do accept un- 



critically certain attitudes toward this problem, attitudes I find unrealistic and 
perhaps unprofitable. Put negatively, there is the common American attitude 
that "abstract" ideas in particular are mere disguises for real, hard motives; 
put positively, there is the attitude that these real, hard motives are limited to 
the kind of rational self-interest the economist takes as his starting point and 
ending point that the great clue to all human conduct is in the old tag cut 
bono, with the bonum very clear, very material, preferably hard cash. Now I 
am willing for the moment to assume the correctness of the view of human 
nature that lies behind these attitudes a view rather oddly close to some 
aspects of Christian pessimism and remote from the attitude of the Enlight- 
ened but I insist that in real life these basic drives or urges or what you will 
emerge into actual human conduct only through a long process which involves 
sentiments, emotions, symbols, "ideas," some of them very "abstract," like 
the idea that abstract ideas have no activating part in human conduct. I dare 
not here attempt any refutation of these great national beliefs of ours. For one 
thing, I have been much snubbed by my countrymen for displaying my igno- 
rance of the realities of life. Only a few months ago a ranger in the Craters of 
the Moon National Monument crushed my suggestion that perhaps the In- 
dians pitched their tepees in a particularly Dantesque spot in the monument 
pure devilish black lava because men have always been fascinated by any 
hell that moves them religiously; on the contrary, he insisted, they came there 
because, in spite of the apparent desolation of the spot, it really was full of 
game that came there to drink from pools accumulated in the contorted lava. 
He may well have been right; but there are not always pools in the lava flow, 

I submit, as a mere parting shot or so, that though the phrase "abstract 
ideas" has in our contemporary culture a pejorative sense, we usually mean 
by abstract ideas those we dislike, or do not share, or are somewhat ashamed 
of confessing we entertain. I am not even wholly persuaded that American 
G.I.'s in our last two wars were quite as contemptuous of the noble, the good, 
and the true in our war aims as the investigators insist they were. There is a 
long and dignified Western masculine tradition of concealing the nobler senti- 
ments except in epic or dramatic moments. And as for the common American 
belief in the economic interpretation of everything, this, too, is partly a pose, 
and even more a habit of thought which has hopelessly ennobled economic 
activity into a form of the agon, and thus quite removed from it the nice ra- 
tionalism of self-interest with which economic theorists still tend to endow it. 

There remain a few more introductory explanations about which I shall 
try to be specific. I have already said that morals are not, under analysis, 


A History of Western Morals 

identical with manners, nor even in quite simple discourse "related to," or 
"a variety of," manners. The student of human conduct cannot, however, 
hope to work effectively with the kind of precise systematic terms the taxo- 
nomic biologist, for instance, must insist upon. Human thought and feeling 
about manners and morals clearly do not separate them rigorously; "good" 
and "bad" do the needed work in both realms of discourse. There is, indeed, 
commonly among Westerners a feeling that morals are concerned with loftier 
matters; that taste, at least in the fine arts, is concerned with less lofty but still 
serious and important matters; and that taste in cookery and other not-fine 
arts is a rather low thing, and manners in the sense of civility somehow 
basically an artificial, ideally unnecessary, though actually important, thing. 
Yet there is nothing like agreement in the West on such usage, and the above 
sentence could hardly have been written save by an American. An English- 
man or a Frenchman, though he might well agree that morals are at the top 
of this particular order of rank, would surely rewrite the rest of the sentence 
and not in the same way. Everywhere there are individuals who, by the 
test of what symbols arouse their indignation we are here well beyond 
simple animal rage find matters of taste at least as important as matters of 
morals. Even in the United States, where the finest of arts is not quite as 
dignified a matter as morals, there are those who find crooners more evil than 

Indeed, the kind of mind that likes to stretch words into great blankets 
could claim that a history of morals is necessarily a complete history of all 
human activity. In the sense I am here giving to "morals" the relation be- 
tween ethics and conduct it seems clear that man is inevitably a moral 
creature, and the only one. For man alone is capable of the kind of thinking 
"symbolic thinking," a now generally accepted phrase, will do well enough 
here which can produce an ethics. I certainly do not propose in this book 
to consider, as so many treatises on ethics do, the moral sense in the higher 
animals. I grant that a scolded dog can look guilty, but in my use of the term 
the dog cannot have ethics and therefore cannot be moral or immoral, simply 
because he is incapable of symbolic thinking. You can say "naughty dog," 
and your dog will "understand" you: but no two dogs ever discussed together 
whether "naughty" is a relative or an absolute, or even whether in a given 
instance the use of "naughty" was just or unjust. 

I shall not here attempt to study in detail the morals of our prehistoric 
Western ancestors directly or by analogy with the primitive peoples the 
anthropologist studies; nor shall I, save incidentally, study the morals of chil- 



dren. These studies are of great importance. In the long reaction (which may 
have passed its peak) against the late eighteenth-century belief in the power 
of right thinking to change rapidly and completely the conduct of large 
numbers of men, it has come to seem probable that human conduct is influ- 
enced by our biological as well as our cultural inheritance from the millennia 
before Plato and Isaiah, and by our immediate interpersonal relations with 
our parents, siblings, and child companions, much, much more than by our 
cultural inheritance from the last twenty-five centuries of Western history. 
Moreover, all that anthropologists, prehistorians, and psychologists have be- 
gun to find out begins to look rather fundamental, rather hard to change. But 
such studies have really only just begun, and can hardly yet be incorporated 
into a history of this kind. I am, furthermore, quite incompetent through lack 
of training to appreciate critically the literature in these fields. I shall there- 
fore begin in the old-fashioned way, after a hopeful nod to the anthropol- 
ogists, with the peoples of the Ancient Near East and the Greeks. 

I shall not attempt to write about the moral history of peoples other than 
those generally understood nowadays as Western. Here, again, this limiting 
choice is by no means a sign that I think the story of the ethics and the 
conduct of the Chinese, the Japanese, the Hindus, the Aztecs, and all the rest 
unimportant. It is a sign partly of my own ignorance and partly of my de- 
liberate intention to keep this book within manageable limits of length, for 
the reader's sake as well as my own. Furthermore, it seems to me clear that a 
history of Western morals need not be greatly concerned with what, in 
Toynbee's words, we know as "contacts between civilizations." The fact is 
that in the time and places covered by the old classic school sequence of 
Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, the "cultural narcissism" clear in the Greek 
distinction between "Hellenes" and "Barbarians" has been the pattern for the 
West. No doubt -within the West itself the narrow limits of the national or 
racial in-group have never in historic times kept out for long "foreign" influ- 
ences. Juvenal was, for a Roman satirist, reasonably accurate: the Syrian 
river Orontes did flow into the Tiber, though in the long run it turned out to 
be even more important that the Jordan, too, flowed into the Tiber. But 
though there were faint contacts between Rome and China, though with the 
Polos and da Gama and Columbus the West began its expansion, Europe and 
the Near East did not really "learn" and in particular did not learn morality 
from the peoples they subdued, traded with, and taught so much. Even 
today, the Yangtze and the Ganges by no means empty into the Hudson nor 
does the Volga. 


A History of Western Morals 


The historian of morals must try to find out what the actual conduct of all 
sorts and conditions of men has been. He encounters or so it seems to one 
engaged in the effort even more difficulties than does the historian of pol- 
itics, war, economic activity, and other human pursuits. Some of these diffi- 
culties, both in getting source material and in organizing what he does get, are 
worth brief attention here. 

Especially for the conduct, but also for the ethics, of the ordinary man, 
reliable information is hard to come by, and sometimes, as in the early medi- 
eval centuries, almost wholly lacking. The problem is real enough for the 
sociologist or the psychologist studying contemporary and recent societies. 
It is perhaps sufficient to ask the question: How near the real truth of the 
actual sexual conduct of representative or typical mid-twentieth-century 
American men and women let alone of the universal "male" and "female" 
of his titles did the late Dr. Kinsey get? But we do have such studies, and 
since about 1750 increasingly elaborate and, to be fair, increasingly accurate 
statistics about a great deal of human conduct, good and bad, of great value 
to the historian of morals. We have no such wealth of evidence for earlier 
periods. It would be rash indeed to entitle a book "The Sexual Behavior of 
the Human Male in the Roman Empire." We know reliably enough that the 
Greeks did expose newborn children, especially females, but we can hardly 
pretend to give statistics as to what proportions were so exposed, or what, if 
any, were the variations by class, city-state, or period of time. 12 

Nevertheless, there are sources from which with caution it is possible to 
get rough notions of the actual conduct not only of the upper or ruling 
classes, but also of ordinary men and women. The conclusions based on such 
sources cannot, it must be insisted, satisfy anything like the going standards 
of the social scientist concerned with the conduct of human beings in con- 
temporary society; and if the precedents of the last few centuries of historical 
investigation hold for the future, our successor will do better than we can hope 
to do. Dire predictions that we shall not get any more facts about, say, well- 
worked periods like the English Middle Ages have so far not come true. 

The most important body of information for us surely lies in the great 
body of Western literature. For the purposes of the historian of morals, almost 

12 But for an interesting attempt to reconstitute something like statistics, using the com- 
paratively objective and nonliterary source afforded by inscriptions, see W. W. Tarn, 
Hellenistic Civilisation, London, Arnold, 1927, p. 87. The inscriptions are those of the 
third and second centuries B.C. 



none of it is without value. Some of it, however, presents very great dangers 
for the interpreter. These dangers are greatest in the writings commonly cata- 
logued as dealing with morals. An extreme case often proves most illuminat- 
ing. The Roman satirists, Horace, Martial, Juvenal, and the rest, were gifted 
writers indeed. To judge from their writings, Romans, and, in particular, 
upper-class Romans, spent most of their time in fornication, gluttonous eat- 
ing, drunkenness, langorous hot baths, backbiting, informing, betraying (heir 
friends, imitating and exceeding the example set by the corrupt Greeks and 
Syrians in short, setting something like a record in iniquity. Here is a good 

Who now is loved, but he who loves the Times, 

Conscious of close Intrigues, and dipt in Crimes; 

Lab'ring with Secrets which his bosom burn, 

Yet never must to publick light return? 

They get reward alone who can Betray: 

For keeping honest Counsel none will pay. . . . 

The Barbarous Harlots crowd the publick Place: 

Go, Fools, and purchase an unclean embrace; 

The painted Mitre court, and the more painted Face. 13 

The pattern thus set has had many imitators in the West ever since. Yet it is 
as certain as anything of the sort can be that Juvenal and his fellows cannot 
be taken as reliable authorities for the actual conduct even of the Roman 
upper classes who read their work. The sensitive, the indignant, especially 
when they have literary gifts the Orwells, the Koestlers are untrustworthy 

The difficulty here is central and familiar to readers of newspapers and 
one hopes to their writers. The really wicked deed is much more interesting 
than ordinary conventional behavior; it is news. In my brief service with the 
federal government I had occasion to make an "evaluation" of the horrendous 
reports of what French Resistance groups were doing to the occupying Ger- 
mans in 1943. 1 began my report with the suggestion that it was dangerous 
to generalize for all of France from the fact if it was a fact that a truck- 
load of German soldiers on the way to a movie in Orleans had been bombed. 
I suggested that even what the army called "intelligence" was subject to the 
ways of journalism; the headline is "Banker found in love-nest," never "Ten 
thousand bankers spend night at home." My analogy was found unsuited 

is The reader will find the whole gamut run in this Third Satire of Juvenal's. I have 
quoted from Dryden's good liberal translation. 


A History of Western Morals 

to the dignity that should mark government reports, but I assume that my 
point was made. 

To this basic fact, that the exceptional is more interesting than the 
usual, and the exceptionally wicked especially interesting, there must be 
added other facts about the literary that make some of the greatest monu- 
ments of literature quite untrustworthy for our purposes. It is again an 
observed and continually observable fact that the writer, as perhaps the most 
characteristic intellectual, shows to the full a characteristic of the Western 
intellectual tradition, the tendency to use the mind to exhort, to correct, to 
complain, to do with the written word a great deal that has indeed to be done, 
that is surely worth doing, but that is not reporting the results of accurate 
observing so organized as to distinguish clearly between the exceptional and 
the usual, and degrees in between. This last sentence was written heavily and 
cautiously. I may risk more brevity: just man watching, a task much harder 
than bird watching, is rare among moralists. Moreover, the writer in recent 
times, and to a degree throughout Western cultural history, has felt himself 
shut out from ordinary men by his superior sensitiveness, or superior bright- 
ness, or some other superiority. Where he is not tempted to exhort or com- 
plain, he is then often tempted to shine. The aphorist, La Rochefoucauld, for 
example, or Nietzsche at his best, however admirably they say certain things 
"true" things, even are particularly unreliable as reporters of what ordi- 
nary people are like, and of what such people believe to be right and proper. 
Or, to underscore the obvious, the introductory paragraphs of the New 
Yorker do not do the job of man watching for our contemporary United 
States. Even the Reader's Digest is probably a better man watcher. 

Yet it must be repeated that the whole body of Western literature is a 
priceless store of source material for the historian of morals. He cannot begin 
to know this whole body, not even indirectly through literary histories. He 
can but sample. On the whole, the most useful genre from our present point 
of view is the novel and its analogues Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, for 
example, and even some of the epics where the writer sets himself up as 
observer and narrator rather than as moralist. The great histories, of course, 
are useful, more so when they are the work of a restrained and conscientious 
moral philosopher like Thucydides or a bright but not too Voltairian a story- 
teller like Herodotus than when they are the work of a deeply injured moralist 
like Tacitus, or a soured one like Henry Adams. There is a residue of obser- 
vation of actual human conduct even in the work of writers whom the French, 
who used to be masters of the genre, call moralistes. La Rochefoucauld's 



"There are those who would never have loved had they not heard love talked 
about" is penetrating though clever; note that La Rochefoucauld wrote 
"loved," not "made love." 

With the beginning of printing in the fifteenth century and of journalism 
in the seventeenth, the record of human activity of all sorts in the West begins 
to be very complete; with the beginnings of statistics and of the behavioral or 
social sciences in the eighteenth, it begins to be better organized. There are 
still gaps and difficulties, but what the historian calls source material is for 
these centuries almost too abundant. Moreover, the technological revolutions 
of the modern West have also been revolutions in scholarship. The labors of 
generations of scholars have unearthed a great deal of information about the 
Western past, so that even though the past especially the Greco-Roman 
past may be gradually pushed out of higher education, there is already on 
our great library shelves an accumulation of "facts" about this culture that 
would have amazed, delighted, and perhaps disillusioned a humanist of the 

The historian of morals will find in the work of social historians one of 
his most valuable sources of material on what ordinary men and women have 
done. Social history is often an amorphous mass of details, but it is a splendid 
mine or, rather, heap of tailings in which the historian of morals will find 
much good ore. It is not an altogether new kind of history; Herodotus was 
a fine social historian. But it offered the nineteenth century a convenient re- 
pository for much information about the past the scholars were digging up, 
and which couldn't be fitted anywhere else. A work like Ludwig Friedlander's 
Roman Life and Manners under the Early Empire, though it seems to have 
hardly any structure and barely even a point of view, brings together in one 
place an immense amount of fragmentary information about what the Ro- 
mans were doing. There are many others of the sort. 

The great problem remains: How can these odds and ends of facts be put 
together? Is there a describable normal human conduct in a given time and 
place? Certainly in the sense of a statistical mean or average, let alone a 
distribution curve, there is not much use in the historian's attempting to 
achieve anything of the sort. I have already noted as a warning the work of 
the late Dr. Kinsey. We do, however, constantly try to form notions of the 
typical, the normal, the "ideal," if you do not object to the word, where we 
lack not so much facts for the mind to work on as a good, reliable guide or 
tool for the mind to work with. The scientist has in mathematics such a tool. 
The humanist will maintain that he has tradition-developed methods which, 


A History of Western Morals 

aided by intuitive familiarity with the human activities he is studying, and 
supported by scholarly conscientiousness and, if possible, by a little common 
sense, will enable him to draw not wholly invalid generalization out of even 
imperfect or incomplete data. The humanist may well be right. I shall do my 
best in this book to live up to his standards. 

Our supply of material information in the field of ethics is abundant, even 
for the earlier periods of written Western history. The historian of formal 
philosophy must regret lacunae, such as the lack of works of the pre-Socratics, 
or of whole texts of the two great founders of the rival schools of ethics, 
Epicurus and Zeno the Stoic. It would be a great addition to our heritage 
to have more, for instance, from the Heraclitus who could leave the brilliant 
fragment "character as fate." Still, the historian of ideas can hardly complain 
that he does not know what Greek and Roman formal philosophers thought 
about the good life. Man is an incurably moral animal, and almost every 
written record, and much of his other records, such as the fine arts, give some 
hint as to what he thought good and what he thought evil. Formal philosoph" 
ical ethics are probably a much less unreliable guide to what ordinary men 
thought right and proper than it is fashionable in certain intellectual circles 
even now to admit. But we can supplement the work of ethical philosophers 
by much that unquestionably does touch the lives of ordinary men codes of 
conduct for religious groups, law codes, folk wisdom and its reflection in such 
works as Franklin's Poor Richard, folk art of various kinds, and a great deal 
of the literature I have mentioned above as a source of information about 
the conduct of ordinary men. Special care, of course, needs to be taken in 
special cases; the harsh criminal law codes of most Western European coun- 
tries in the eighteenth century, for instance, are by no means a reliable indi- 
cation of what anybody thought was right and proper at the time. Nor from 
the fact that in popular literature at most times and places in the West the 
cuckolded husband is a lamentable figure, the wife and the lover quite ad- 
mirable ones, would it be safe to conclude that ordinary men and women 
really felt adultery to be an ethical good. 

But abundant though our information about what Westerners have con- 
sidered to be ethically good and ethically bad may be, the problem of organ- 
izing this information is at least as difficult as for actual human conduct. The 
problem of the typical or normal, and of the nature and extent of variations, 
remains a serious one for the study of the ideal as for the study of the actual, 
as difficult for the study of attitudes as for the study of performance. Here 
there can hardly be mention of statistical treatment. It would be wonderful 



to have the results of a properly conducted public-opinion poll of attitudes 
in times past. What did the English think about "corruption" under Walpole 
in 1734? What did Parisians think about the St. Bartholomew's massacre in 
1572 (strongly approve, mildly approve, mildly disapprove, strongly disap- 
prove, don't know)? What did they think about the same event a hundred 
years later? Two hundred years later? Three hundred years later? Of course, 
one cannot give even retrospective guesses in terms of figures. Londoners may 
have disapproved more strongly of Walpole's regime of graft in 1834 than in 
1734; there should have been more "don't knows" in 1834 than in Walpole's 
own lifetime, for the British have the gift of forgetting the less noble parts of 
their past. Parisians would probably have shifted from approval to disap- 
proval of St. Bartholomew's Eve by 1772. In spite of the humane aspects of 
nineteenth-century culture, it is possible that the poll in 1872 would show 
some rise in approvals over the one in 1772, for the great French Revolution 
had reawakened religious fears and hatreds. I feel pretty sure that even after 
four centuries the "don't knows" of indifference or ignorance would not have 
increased greatly in Paris, for the French feel fully the weight of their history. 

But these guesses little befit so serious a matter as history, which can 
hardly afford to indulge in the relaxation of putting itself in the conditional 
mood. I shall try in this book to achieve by the methods of the humanist rea- 
sonably good generalizations not mere guesses about the moral prefer- 
ences of men in past times. In particular, I shall try to rescue this study from 
the rag-bag incoherence of much social history by trying to describe as con- 
cretely as possible the varieties of what men have held up as the admirable 
human being the moral ideal, to use a good, simple, concrete term. 14 

Word trouble looms here, of course. "Hero" is an obvious possibility; 
but that word is stained by Carlyle's private misuse of it, and has, moreover, 
much too specific associations with simple early societies and noble cultures 
to do what is necessary here. Words like "type," "pattern," or some com- 
pound of "figure," as in "father-figure," seem to me either too flat or too 
closely associated with the vocabulary of formal psychology. As for the 
"admirable," I shall not mind if you prefer the "enviable" human figure, 
though I should think it better to add enviable to admirable, for admiration 
and envy often go together, though one or the other may be a mere trace, in 
the human soul. The word "ideal" has also the advantage that it at least 

i 4 W. E. H. Lecky in his introductory chapter to the History of European Morals from 
Augustus to Charlemagne (New York, Braziller, 1955, Vol. I, pp. 153 ff.) has some 
interesting remarks on what he calls "moral types" and "rudimentary virtues." (Two 
volumes are in this edition printed as one, paged as two.) 


A History of Western Morals 

suggests that the admired figure is not any single human being. Of course, the 
ideal can sometimes be "embodied" in a real living person, or in a fictitious 
character who is quite as much a living person. Achilles embodies or person- 
ifies much of the old Greek ideal. Abraham Lincoln does so for Americans. 
But there remains a residue no one real figure can quite encompass. If it is at 
all possible to make sensible generalizations about the American ideal and 
the old problem of accurate generalization is most acute in problems of 
national character in our modern world the final form or picture must be 
a composite to which, in addition to Lincoln, Henry Ford, Jefferson, Wash- 
ington, and even Emerson make their contributions. It is tempting to add to 
this list Paul Bunyan, Babe Ruth, and Gary Cooper, with Marilyn Monroe 
thrown in for good measure. 

This last remark suggests a further difficulty. Even if you grant that with 
due caution and by adding all sorts of variations for nationality, class, reli- 
gion, even personality, one can arrive at a most complicated picture, there 
will still remain the question: Is this what people really admired, or did they 
merely say they admired it, thought it proper to admire it, but actually ad- 
mired something else, something very different? Or in terms I have been 
using in this book, is this a purely ethical ideal, wholly an "ought" without 
any influence over the "is," and therefore not really a moral ideal in which 
the "ought" and the "is" are organically related? There is a point of view 
from which such a question is wholly unanswerable, and, indeed, presump- 
tuous. No one can get inside another person, be another person. 

But all science is presumptuous, as the Greek Prometheus and the 
Hebrew Job learned long ago, with very different results, at the beginnings 
of our story; the social sciences are even more presumptuous than the natural. 
We shall have to go ahead with as little as possible of the pride that makes 
presumption. In daily life we all encounter in others the contrast between 
what is said and what is done, a contrast that in particularly glaring and un- 
pleasant circumstances we call "hypocrisy." Now the hypocrite, who by defi- 
nition knows he does one thing and says another and contrary thing, is much 
rarer than is commonly supposed. For the most part, by a system the psychol- 
ogist calls our "defenses" we actually manage to keep the inconvenient reality 
which contrasts with the pleasant ideal altogether out of our minds, or, at any 
rate, out of our consciousness. Not by any means always. The naive notion 
occasionally professed in the West that all ethics is hypocrisy is nonsense. 
Significantly enough, the complementary notions that all actual human con- 
duct is of a piece, not to be judged as good or bad, but just taken as "mate- 



rial," or that actual human conduct really is as ethics states it should be, and 
evil an illusion, have hardly ever been held here in the West. We do not in 
daily awareness usually divorce what I call "ethics" and what I call "con- 
duct." 15 

Once again, a concrete example should help. The Christian saint was one 
of the ideals of the Middle Ages, an ideal that spilled over in part on just 
ordinary churchmen. But in the contemporary French popular tales known 
as the fabliaux, in the amusing wood carvings on the choir stalls which often 
make fun of the monks who propped themselves up on them during the long 
services, in the works of a Chaucer or a Boccaccio, in page after page of 
the interesting miscellany of medieval documents assembled by the late 
G. G. Coulton, there is unmistakable evidence of popular irreverence toward 
the clergy. 16 Priests and, more especially, monks, appear as fornicators, liars, 
gluttons, drunkards, idlers, hypocrites. Did the medieval peasant and towns- 
man then at heart reject the Christian ethical ideal? Was their true moral 
preference for something a good deal more worldly, not to say fleshly, than 
the saint? Did they perhaps most admire the outlaw, the rebel against con- 
ventional standards, the Robin Hood? These questions I hope to struggle 
with in their proper place in our story; here I pose them as examples of 
difficulties that face us. 

The difficulty here may be partly overcome by trying to distinguish be- 
tween admiration and envy in particular instances, for admiration is, in 
common usage, considered good, and envy bad. Neither good nor bad this 
is a clich6 1 have not yet permitted myself, but it is a sound and unavoidable 
cliche is often found in human conduct in the simple and mutually exclu- 
sive state they are often found in ethics; they are mixed, though, again, almost 
always in varying proportions, which can be, not mathematically weighed or 
measured, but humanly weighed and measured. For the human ideal type of 
a given culture, men almost always feel a kind of admiration not necessarily 
unmixed with envy, but an admiration that makes them even in their secret 
conscience unaware or at least unashamed of the tincture of envy present. 
Thus the Greeks admired Achilles; thus we admke Lincoln. In our American 

is I realize that there are in our Western tradition pantheistic and universalist philoso- 
phies and theologies which get rid of evil completely and sometimes of good also: 
and I know that the followers of Mrs. Eddy find illusory much that the rest of us find 
only too real. But I think that those who deny the reality of evil are much more 
nagged by something inside themselves that rejects this world view than are those who 
deny the reality, or, at any rate, the prevailing, of good. The pure pessimists seem 
perversely to enjoy their metaphysics more than do the pure optimists, 
i* Life in the Middle Ages, four volumes in one, New York, Macmillan, 193 1. 


A History of Western Morals 

culture the gangster hero is envied for his success, his wealth, his fame, but he 
is not admired as a moral ideal. One good test is that failure ruins a gangster 
with all but the most fanatically devoted of his "admirers"; there are no 
martyrs save among the good. 

The problem of the winning scoundrel is certainly a real one. I should not 
question for a moment the common verdict that Satan comes out for many 
readers as the hero of Milton's Paradise Lost. But Satan in this poem is by 
no means what I mean by a "moral ideal" in the West. The old Latin tag puts 
the matter more clearly: Video meliora proboque; deteriora sequor. 17 Poor 
Ovid has had a bad press. I think he really meant this, as I think another 
rather spotted moral being, La Rochefoucauld, meant his basically identical 
statement: Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. 18 Our morals are as 
real as our digestion; the good and bad no more and no less mysterious in 
one than in the other. 

There will be a long line of these ideal figures or patterns, none of them 
to be treated without qualifications, without some question as to how uni- 
versal their appeal, how real the esteem in which they were held by various 
groups in the community. These figures will inevitably be varied and in one 
sense disparate, since the degree of moral dignity, the extent to which they 
seem to reflect conduct as well as ethics, and much else about them will not 
be the same. We shall encounter the Homeric hero, the beautiful-and-good 
of the Golden Age of Greece. 19 We shall have to measure the Roman citizen- 
soldier-country gentleman of the great days of the Republic, the Christian 
saint, the Renaissance man of virtu, the French aristocrat of the best days of 
Louis XIV, the English gentleman, the French philosophe of the eighteenth 
century, the Prussian Junker, the Byronic artist, the pure scientist, the Ameri- 
can frontiersman or "pioneer," and many others. They will not be as real as 
the flesh-and-blood individuals who figure in narrative history, nor as varied 
and as complex. But we can hope they will prove quite as interesting. And 
they are even more important, for they are a distillation of men's hopes and 
fears. They are the guides, the myths, the symbols, of which our hope-ridden, 

if Ovid, Metamorphoses, VII, 20. (I see the better course and approve it; I follow the 

i*Maximes, No. 218. 

!9 kalokagathia. This deceptively ordinary phrase has been the despair of genera- 
tions of translators; it is, of course, untranslatable. So, too, are virtu and philosophe, 
which also appear on this list. I shall try, as such terms arise, to make their meaning 
clear in a translation which will be necessarily a periphrasis; but I shall often use the 
original terms in the text, preferring exactness to good taste, these two being, unfor- 
tunately, not always identical. 



fear-ridden age or at least the prophets, publicists, and analysts of our age 
are so conscious. 

This concept of a moral ideal will, I hope, help tie together in some kind 
of unity the diverse materials of this book. I shall also make frequent use of 
a unifying concept worth brief semantic notice here, for I do not find quite 
the right word or phrase in common American usage: I am going to make 
much use of the word "agon." Western men have always striven among 
themselves, as individuals and as groups. Our own society likes to use the 
term "competition," and, especially, the misleading term "free competition," 
which have for our purposes here much too narrow connotations from eco- 
nomics. "Conflict" is a good and necessary word and thing but its use 
might to some readers carry the suggestion that men commonly fight for 
the sake of fighting, that they are "naturally" bellicose, competitive, instinc- 
tively and masculinely inclined to mauling. So, no doubt, are many men. But 
I prefer to emphasize by my choice of words what they fight, or compete, for; 
this I hope to achieve in part by borrowing from the Greek the word "agon" 
(dywv), which I shall translate, with an ironic glance at the social Darwinists, 
as the "struggle for prize." 

The agon was originally the formal religiously ritualized assembly of the 
Greeks to witness their games, and only later came to mean any struggle, trial, 
or danger, which, given overtones of harshness and pain, made the word 
agorua (aywla) and our own "agony." But simply as agon, the word can carry 
a great and complex weight of meaning the desire of men to gain honor 
and esteem by winning out in competition with their fellows, the need for 
ritual recognition of such achievement, the need for rules of the game, for a 
code, in short, for morality since a genuine free-for-all, "nature red in tooth 
and claw," is simply not humanly enjoyable, not even bearable, for long 
the reality of conflict, of bitter, heart-rending struggle even when it is so 
regulated and moralized, the pain, the tragedy (agonia) of success as well 
as of failure, the driving animal force of living that makes even "blessed are 
the meek" a kind of battle cry, man's need of much, so unreasonably much. 
No single word or phrase can carry all the weight of human nature; that is 
why the struggle for life, the class struggle, competition, co-operation, the 
lust for wealth, the will to power, the will to shine, the desire of the moth for 
the star, cannot sum up what makes us what we are. I do not claim for "agon" 
a magic I deny these other terms. I use it in this book largely because I think 
that, especially for American readers, who are likely to have inclinations 
toward a misleadingly innocent economic interpretation of human conduct, 


A History of Western Morals 

toward the often naive cut bono, it may help redress the balance toward 
recognition of the great part ritual combat or competition, fully integrated 
with religious and moral sentiments, has played in our Western past, and 
still plays in our Western present. The agon, originally knightly and heroic, 
has spread to the fuE range of human interests, from head-hunting to the 
acquisition of honorary degrees. It seems, indeed, to have played a part in 
that extraordinary phenomenon of our contemporary Western society the 
rise in the birth rate among the comfortably off. To have many children is to 
give proof of being fully adjusted; and adjustment, oddly enough, perhaps, 
after all, democratically enough, has become a prize in the agon. 


This introduction must not swallow the book. We are all, in contrast to most 
of our Victorian predecessors, so aware of the gaps between ethics and con- 
duct, or, more fundamentally and specifically, so aware of the inadequacy of 
the explanations of human nature and human conduct and the consequent 
anticipations of future human conduct which the Victorians took over from 
the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, that I am tempted to call here at least 
part of the whole roll of questions at issue: What, if anything, does the term 
"moral progress" mean? What is there in the old debate on "heredity versus 
environment" for the historian of morals? Is there, perhaps, some foundation 
for the vulgar modern notion that problems of morals are essentially problems 
of sex, and is that notion exclusively modern or exclusively vulgar? How 
important is the structure of classes in a given society and its distribution of 
incomes for the historian of morals? Was Weber right about Calvinist ethical 
justification for worldly wealth? 

Many of these problems will come up in their due place in this study. 
Here we must as a last introductory word note that for the historian of morals 
and of ethics on the one hand and of religion and of theology on the other, 
there arises another one of these intricate problems of breaking down in 
analysis a relation so close as to be, in real life for real people, a felt unity. 
The old debate as to whether religion and morals can be divorced ought at 
least to be somewhat affected by what seems to me to be the fact that in 
Western experience they never have been divorced. Such a statement does, 
indeed, imply a definition of religion that by no means all Westerners will 
accept. I consider that in addition to the classic revealed monotheisms of the 
West, Jewish, Christian, and Moslem, and the classic polytheisms of Greece 



and Rome and the much less classic ones of Germans, Celts, and Slavs, there 
has been a whole series of what the eighteenth century liked to call "natural" 
religions for which it is difficult to find a good common term. I am being 
quite fashionable today when I note modern Marxism as one of these religions 
without a supernatural godhead. What the Marxist believes about the nature 
of the universe his religion seems to me to have some relation to what he 
believes about the nature of man and his place in that universe his morals. 
The same is true of the positivist, the rationalist, the member of an ethical- 
culture society, and all the other varieties of what M. Raymond Aron calls a 
"secular religion." Here again a final warning: I shall not assume either that 
a man's religion "determines" his moral beliefs and practices or that a man's 
moral beliefs and practices "determine" his religion. Once more, they are 
mutually dependent. 

But difficulties difficulties of securing from all my readers that suspen- 
sion of moral indignation I wish as a historian of morals to obtain as often as 
possible force me to use another pretentious term, one most offensive to 
the purist in language. Since words like "religion" and "theology" applied, 
say, to modern Western nationalism, or to Marxism, or to any form of En- 
lightenment clearly do offend many Christians, I shall reluctantly fall back 
at times on that horrid Germanism "world view" (Weltanschauung) . No the- 
ist, I think, will deny that the Marxist, or even the Enlightened democrat, has 
at least a world view; and we need not pay much attention to the Marxist or 
other Enlightened when they say they have no such thing, but merely a way 
of finding the truth scientific truth. Everyone who tries to read this book 
has a world view, or a set of world views; indeed, I suspect that world views 
are held by those well down in that already old-fashioned order of rank we 
call the I.Q. 

We are ready, then, to embark on a brief survey of a phase of Western 
history that with the imperialistic drive so natural to man I am here tempted 
to call the most important, the most essential, phase of that history. But I will 
settle for less: the history of morals is simply an important, difficult, and 
relatively neglected part of that history. 


Origins: The Ancient Near East 

book about a phase of ancient Egyptian culture which he entitled The Dawn 
oj Conscience^ Breasted's love for his subject led him to claim for the 
Egyptians a priority that is hardly theirs. It is indeed quite possible that the 
Jews found in earlier Egyptian writings the basis for much of the "wisdom 
literature" of the Old Testament. It may even be possible to claim for the 
Egyptians the first recorded examples of men thinking about ethical prob- 
lems, though the specialist in Mesopotamian studies might maintain that the 
creation myths of that area, which may well be at least as old as anything of 
the sort we have from Egypt, show men definitely aware of moral good and 
moral evil, and their implications for conduct. 

We need not here take sides on this issue, for the actual dawn of con- 
science it must have been a very gradual one is hopelessly lost in pre- 
history. At a minimal definition, the notion of conscience demands an aware- 
ness of a future. Homo sapiens must have had that awareness very early in 
his evolution, if not from the very beginning. With that awareness there must 
have come long, long ago the symbolic expression of a mood Robert Frost 
put into our words just yesterday in his familiar poem "The Road Not Taken" 
from Mountain Interval. The man of the Stone Ages must have regretted that 
he took one road, not the other: this is surely the dawn of conscience. These 
men were moral beings, and had a moral history, but that history will never 
be written. The skeletal remains and the tools and other artifacts which give 
i New York, Scribner, 1933. 


Origins: The Ancient Near East 

us all the information we are likely to get about these men and women simply 
do not answer the kind of question the historian of morals must ask. It is 
quite clear, for instance, that axes and arrows were used to kill human beings 
as well as game, but we do not know how the killers felt about the Trilling. 
It seems likely that some primitive ancestors of Western men did not fight 
much; but were they moral pacifists? Anthropological studies of modern 
"primitives" permit a very safe inference that at least within a specific in- 
group the ethical concept enshrined in our word "murder" existed among 
these men of the Stone Ages. We can on the same basis make a good many 
inferences, such, for instance, as that they did not take sex in their stride; they 
must have worried about it, talked about it, and would, if they could, have 
written about it. 

All our sound knowledge of recent and existing primitive societies does 
remain inference when it is applied to Western prehistoric societies. It has 
been of very great use in eliminating, or at least cutting down the general 
acceptance of, certain misleading simplifications about human nature, and 
hence, of course, about morals, that we have inherited, above all, from 
eighteenth-century notions about an original "state of nature" in which men 
were, to put it mildly, believed to have been very different from Westerners 
in 1780. Indeed, what can be, not immodestly, called the cumulative knowl- 
edge about human beings that the social scientists have gradually built up 
does enable the historian of Western morals to start off with some broad 
generalizations about the possible ways in which what went on during the 
hundreds of centuries of prehistory help explain what went on in our brief 
Western history or, at the very least, to sketch out some limits of Western 
conduct not always recognized as limits by those who set up Western ethical 

We are, of course, on the unsettled ground of analogy. There are, for 
example, good grounds, the biologists believe, for the statement that when we 
fall we "instinctively" put up our arms because the "instinct" to do this was 
part of the physiological equipment of our tree-borne ancestors. But this 
action, which helped these very distant ancestors to grab the nearest branch 
when they fell by accident, is of no help to us, and is likely to give us a 
broken arm we should not have had were we able to fall with the instincts of 
the cat, or like the trained actor in a death scene, loosening up generally. 2 

Now a parallel case might be found in an activity more obviously involved 

2 The instance is from Fred Hoyle, Man and Materialism, New York, Harper, 1956, 
pp. 25-26. 


A History of Western Morals 

in a history of morals than a physical fall. We are all subject to the kind of 
emotion I have in my introductory chapter called moral indignation; indeed, 
the news photograph of the good Negro girl and the bad white girl there cited 
will do as our concrete example. A large number of Americans were certainly 
made angry by the sight of that photograph. In the process that makes us 
"feel" this anger, the body produces a flow from the adrenal glands, a flow 
that in the primitive past of Homo sapiens moved him to anger or fear, and 
hence to fighting or running away, either action in its proper place a response 
useful to his survival. But the action of the adrenal glands we get from reading 
the daily newspaper can hardly end in any such direct action; the letter to the 
editor is no substitute for hitting someone hard and quickly. It is possible 
that this misdirected adrenal flow may have something to do with all sorts 
of human ills now fashionably called psychosomatic. 3 

At the very least, it does seem likely that in civilization men face in the 
relation between their thought-sentiment and their "rational" or "scientific" 
thought a kind of problem that did not disturb prehistoric men. I should 
guess that all the very real troubles of conscience yes, conscience sug- 
gested to so many of us by terms like "prejudice," "wishful thinking," "a 
priori," "unscientific" are recent indeed in the long evolution of mankind. 
We cannot often make so simple a confession of the strength of our made-up 
minds as the following, from an Englishman concerned with the horrid 
dangers of Americanization: 

I have long viewed with alarm the influx of American television programmes. It 
is one of our biggest social problems. / have never seen the American programmes 
but I am convinced, after considerable study, that they are a bad influence. 4 

Another broad generalization is even more hazardous than these last, 
since it involves that dangerous and attractive intellectual device, the concept 
of a social or cultural "organism." But it is worth our brief attention. From 
the admirable studies of children made by Jean Piaget and his assistants, it is 
clear that very young children go through a stage, roughly from four years 
or so to nine, but varying with individuals, in which they regard the rules of 
their games the moral code of an important part of their lives as absolutes, 
as part of a reality wholly external to them. Moreover, since they are unable 

3 For an interesting sketch of this problem in nontechnical but scientifically respectable 
language, see Joseph Pick, "The Evolution of Homeostases," Proceedings of the Ameri- 
can Philosophical Society, XCVHI, 1954, p. 298. 

4 Quoted in Terrence O'Flaherty's column in the San Francisco Chronicle, September 
27, 1957. Italics mine. The man who made this statement would probably explain that 
his "study," though not direct observation, still gave him the "facts" that made up his 
mind. We lack the courage of our prejudices. 


Origins: The Ancient Near East 

to distinguish among rules, laws, and "natural" events, their concepts of 
agency, responsibility, and guilt are quite different from those of adults. 5 Now 
it is risky to appeal to the familiar biological notion of recapitulation the 
human fetus, for instance, briefly has something like gills, retracing, so to 
speak, almost instantaneously the stage of our evolution when we were fishes. 
The morals of Piaget's child subjects do bear striking similarity to the morals 
of Western societies we think of as "young," say, the Greeks of the Homeric 
epics or the Jews of the Pentateuch, not so much in their actual content, of 
course, as in the moral attitude toward rules as absolutes. It is less risky to 
say simply that, quite apart from any parallelism between biological and 
cultural development, it may well be that our Western culture has preserved 
over the last few dozen centuries strong traces of an ethical absolutism char- 
acteristic of earlier Western societies. 

Even more apposite, perhaps, is the recent work of the biologists and 
naturalists who call their field "ethology." The work of Konrad Lorenz, 
N. Tinbergen, and many others suggests that the higher animals develop cer- 
tain elaborate forms of behavior they are not born with, in the old sense we 
used to think of as "instinct," but which they do not have to "learn" either. 
We moralists are perhaps too much influenced by the assumption that since 
human morals can be and are so thoroughly verbalized, they must be wholly 
learned, wholly the product of much symbolic thinking embodied and even 
codified in "culture." It goes against the grain to thinfr of "releasers" and 
"imprinters" that bring the human conscience into play or work; but this 
is a line of investigation that many believe will prove fruitful for the social 
sciences. In the balance, surely, the Western turn in the Age of Reason was 
a turn to excessive intellectualism and to even more excessive meliorism. 6 

Finally, there remain the much-disputed efforts to find leads indeed, 
whole theories for sociology and anthropology from modern depth psy- 
chology. Freud's own attempts in Totem and Taboo and in Moses and Mono- 
theism, the application of Jung's concept of a "collective unconscious" to 
actual social problems, the recent tendency within psychoanalysis itself to 
study the social and cultural environment of the patient all this work has 
so far failed to attain general acceptance among students of human relations. 
It is fashionable now to make fun of Freud's efforts, as a good Jewish non- 
religious Jew, to find the origins of old Jehovah, not in a volcano, but in the 

5 J. Piaget, The Moral Judgment of the Child, trans, by M. Gabain, New York, Ear- 
court, Brace, 1932. 

* The reader will find an interesting and not at all ponderous introduction to this 
field in Konrad Lorenz, King Solomon's Ring, New York, Crowell, 1952. 


A History of Western Morals 

patriarch, the old bull of the herd. But the hope lingers on that we shall find 
in the continued study of human behavior, and with the full collaboration of 
the students of anthropology and prehistory, some clues to the reasons why 
men so obstinately and firmly continue to behave like human beings, and not 
like the happy, rational, natural MAN of the eighteenth-century Enlighten- 

At the very least, we can conclude that the work of biologist, anthropol- 
ogist, and sociologist though not all of them would be willing to admit this 
does suggest that a great deal of our conduct is "determined" by what 
happened to our ancestors, more particularly to our human and anthropoid 
ancestors in the million or so years before written history began a mere five 
thousand years or so ago. The biological aspect is clear indeed: no significant 
change in historic times. Even for the subgroups the ethnologist studies, the 
degree of mixture of different "races" within the West has probably not 
changed significantly in historic times. The last few decades in particular 
have certainly submitted some specimens of Homo sapiens to material en- 
vironments wholly unprecedented. It is sufficient here to mention the air- 
plane and the possibilities of space flight. 

But such matters must be left to the final chapter, when we face such diffi- 
cult questions as whether our total human equipment is good enough to stand 
up against what science and technology have done for us and to us. Here we 
need no more than suggest that, in many ways which we cannot fully under- 
stand, our distant past may well be the most important thing in our lives. We 
were all nomads ten thousand years or so ago, and our Celtic and Germanic 
ancestors were nomads or seminomads much more recently than that. Clearly 
men did make the transition from the life of hunting and food gathering to 
the grinding toil of fanning, the disciplined sociopolitical life of village and 
city, the simple staying put made necessary for the masses by the so-called 
"neolithic revolution." Perhaps survivals of old nomad days have had a part 
in the recurrent phases of cultural "primitivism" in the West, the last of 
which, the eighteenth-century cult of Nature and the Noble Savage, is not yet 
quite dead. Perhaps the nomad of 20,000 B.C. had some part in that very 
modem miracle, the settlement of the American West. 

One more very large topic will suggest the range and difficulty of these 
problems. The human family is an old and universal institution. We find it at 
the beginnings of history in all societies, and though the prehistorian can tell 
us little about the family in our Western Stone Ages, it is inconceivable that 
the family did not exist. A great deal of human conduct is tied up with the 


Origins: The Ancient Near East 

family sex, child rearing, economic activity, law, and much else. The an- 
thropologists, who have taught us so much, have told us that the Christian 
monogamous family in its nineteenth-century Victorian form is not the only 
successful form of the family, and they have, perhaps without always intend- 
ing to do so, shaken the belief that this nineteenth-century Western family is 
the best form of the family, the apex of moral evolution. Now, in the mid- 
twentieth century, the prophets of doom find the family disintegrating in 
the United States, already disintegrated. 7 The historian of morals, indeed the 
historian tout court, can suggest that hundreds of centuries of the family 
granted, not quite in the Victorian tradition make it extremely unlikely that 
the family will disappear in our day, or even change its ways greatly. But he 
cannot go much further than that He can note that over the ages, biology 
and important phases of culture have combined to put women in a position 
"inferior" in some sense to that of men in the West; he can even go further, 
and suggest that some of the resistance men still make to complete equality 
between the sexes is probably a survival from the distant past. And so for 
many of our attitudes in matters of sex, incest, for example, or less shocking 
forms of sexual abnormality; they go back to the beginnings of our record, 
and presumably further, though by no means as constants in form and in- 

To take another and less serious instance, many of us feel special pleasure 
in a fireplace or a campfire. It has been, indeed, a favorite literary device to 
take this pleasure back through the ages to our distant ancestors basking in 
the warmth and security of the safe, controlled little fire in the cave. Certainly 
simple utilitarian explanations seem here inadequate. Modern American 
houses are overheated successfully enough without a fireplace. Nor does the 
motive of snobbery, a perfectly good "rational" motive, seem quite enough 
by itself, for the usual development of snobbery in these matters in the 
United States is in the direction of pride in the very latest thing possible. The 
chimneyless house, however, has not taken hold. 

The difficulty in this and our other instances is to set up a satisfactory 
explanation of just how these attitudes were transmitted over thousands of 
years. Our high-school course in general science set our minds straight about 
the genetics of peas, and even of blue eyes in human beings. But it is hard 
to believe that there is a gene which bears a love of fireplace fires, or even a 
horror of incest. Certainly those particular genes have not been found. Yet 

7 1 am exaggerating, but not much. For an example of such a prophet, see P. A. Soro- 
kin, The American Sex Revolution, Boston, Porter Sargent, 1956. 


A History of Western Morals 

the concept of cultural inheritance remains vague, a vagueness well brought 
out if you try to use realistically a term like "cultural genetics." Clues there 
are, such as Walter Bagehot's happy phrase "unconscious imitation." In the 
broadest sense, it is quite certain that the adult generation does "transmit" 
attitudes to the younger generation, that the young reach adulthood "condi- 
tioned" to these attitudes, which they then find difficult to change. But some 
of them do get changed or, obviously, there would be no history. 

As always, there is a nagging metaphysical problem at the bottom here: 
permanence versus change. As usual, the twentieth-century Westerner has to 
settle as comfortably as he can on both sides. "Something" changes, but 
"something" is relatively permanent. 8 We must note the particular form the 
problem takes here, since one of the great and unsolved questions of morals 
in our own mid-twentieth century is how great and how rapid changes in 
men's conduct for example, in their conduct as members of existing "sover- 
eign" in-groups known as nation-states are possible. The problem has many 
sides, but one important side involves the degree to which we are all impris- 
oned in our past. If the disposition to do certain things has, so to speak, been 
built into us by thousands of years of human social life, the normal assump- 
tion would be that we shall continue to do, or try to do, those things. In 
mid-eighteenth century, as we shall see, the enlightened Westerner believed 
substantially that no such historically determined disposition, at least no such 
disposition toward what he regarded as evil, existed in human beings as 
individuals or in groups. In mid-twentieth century, such a belief is barely 
possible anywhere in the West. 

If the last two centuries of work in the social sciences by no means tell 
us what part if any of our morals we owe to our prehistoric ancestors, it 
has on the whole made it quite clear that those who make plans to reform 
men and their institutions ought not to neglect human history and prehistory, 
since only through such history and prehistory can they learn what kind of 
materials to use a deliberately provocative word they are working with. 
They may well have to learn that those materials are really limited, let us 
say, like "natural" fibers; there are no possible human equivalents of the 
synthetic "miracle" fibers. Moreover, these last two centuries of work in the 
social sciences in the wider sense, also the work of scholars, novelists, phi- 
losophers, of all concerned with human conduct have made it clear that 

8 1 owe to my friend Albert Leon Guerard the very apposite tale of a doctor's oral in 
which the badgered candidate was pushed into a more and more intransigent position. 
One of his tormentors commented, "Well, Mr. So-and-So, you are an absolutist, aren't 
you!" This time the candidate scored: "I suppose I am, sir, relatively." 


Origins: The Ancient Near East 

such conduct has long been exceedingly varied. Primitive men and primitive 
societies studied in modern times have turned out not to be simple, not to 
conform to any one pattern, and its seems hardly likely that our own Western 
prehistoric ancestors were simple either. More particularly, the search for 
some original forms of human personality and human society which we could 
use in good practical propaganda and planning in our own society has proved 
pretty fruitless. Over thousands of years and over the whole planet, there have 
been communist societies and societies based on private property, there have 
been really bewilderingly complex variations in kinship and marriage sys- 
tems, there have been variously defined in-groups and out-groups, there have 
been peaceful societies and bellicose societies, and there have even been soci- 
eties other than our own postmedieval Western society in which individual 
economic success was esteemed. Herbert Spencer's famous summing up of 
the evolution of human society, from "homogeneity to heterogeneity," from 
the simple to the complex, has to be amended into that formula so inevitable 
in the sciences, so repugnant to us all as human beings, heirs of that confused 
and confusing cultural evolution: with respect to A, yes; with respect to B, no. 
The motorcar is more complex than the horse-drawn wagon. The division of 
labor in modern Western society is more complex than it was in the Stone 
Age. But grammatically, at least, our modern Western languages are far 
simpler than earlier ones and our kinship system is simplicity itself compared 
with those of many "primitives." In respect to the still-little-understood work- 
ing of what we call memory, it is likely that the central nervous system of our 
primitive ancestors was more complex than ours; it had to be, for a man's 
mind was then his whole reference library. 9 

In sum, the thing we human beings are and have been, the "human na- 
ture" we shall shortly see was first systematized as a master concept by the 
later Greeks, is not universally and rapidly malleable; but it is extraordinarily 

9 1 do not wish to be understood as suggesting in the above passage either that our 
own contemporaries have abandoned all concepts of a "cultural evolution" of hu- 
manity, or of Western humanity, or even that among such concepts of evolution they 
have wholly given up the basic notion of some savage, earlier, and "lower" stages and 
later civilized "higher" stages of the process; nor do I wish to imply on the other side of 
the contrast that Herbert Spencer's contemporaries were all in agreement with him in 
these matters. Nevertheless, the range of our contemporary theories about such cultural 
evolution is great indeed, from the Marxist to the Toynbean and the Sorokinian; and 
the more moderate ones, such as those of the anthropologist A. L. Kroeber and the 
historian and sociologist of religion Christopher Dawson, are far from Victorian uni- 
linear evolutionary concepts. And as for the Victorians themselves, though some of them 
did reject all notions of evolution, biological as well as cultural, those who accepted such 
notions were not very far apart no further, let us say, than were Comte, Buckle, 
and Spencer in their belief in unilinear "scientific'* evolution. 


A History of Western Morals 

varied and complex. We must reject the kind of metaphor that suggests that 
planners or "cultural engineers" can do with this human stuff anything like 
what the plant breeder does with his plants or the organic chemist with his. 10 
But we must also reject the kind of metaphor that suggests that this human 
stuff is really just one thing, unchangeable yet somehow corruptible. So 
much, it seems to me, the historian of Western morals can risk concluding 
even before he begins his story. 


The story can appropriately begin with the ancient Egyptians, even though 
we cannot accept Breasted's claim that they first knew what we call "con- 
science." In particular, thanks to the remarkable achievements of several 
generations of Egyptologists, we can for these people know a great deal about 
a part of human life of the utmost importance for the historian of morals 
their religious beliefs and practices. For earlier peoples, such as the Magda- 
lenians who made the famous cave paintings some ten thousand years ago, 
we can only guess at their religion. The paintings of bison, the deer, the 
outlined human hands, often with a finger missing, found on the walls of 
caves can hardly have been merely the equivalents of our own contemporary 
decorative or representational arts. The pictured animals were probably put 
there so that the hunters could thereby somehow kill real animals in the hunt; 
they probably were not god animals or totem animals, though it is not incon- 
ceivable that they may have been. Archaeologists have also found in these 
earlier times sculptured female figurines with buttocks and breasts greatly 
exaggerated; the inference is obvious they have some relation to a cult of 
fertility. As for the mutilated hands, they suggest a possible form of ritual 
sacrifice, perhaps even a substitution of a finger for an earlier total sacrifice. 
But even with the aid of comparisons with known primitive peoples, inter- 
pretation of these archaeological materials falls well short of a theology or a 
sociology of religion, and tells us little about ethics. 

For the Egyptians, however, we have a substantial part of all these latter. 
We must therefore pause for a moment and examine the very thorny problem 
of what we mean by religion and what religion has to do with morals. The 
problem is thorny for us largely because a great number of educated West- 
erners today consider that they have no religion but do have morals, and that 
the separation of religion and morals is a natural, normal part of Western 

10 We must reject it even when the metaphor is expanded into a book, as in B. F. 
Skinner's Walden Two, New York, Macmillan, 1948. 


Origins: The Ancient Near East 

life. Historically speaking, this is simply not so; religion and morals have 
been intimately related, though it makes little sense to say that either is the 
"cause" of the other. It is thorny also because for the faithful Jew, Christian, 
or Moslem, what he believes about God and God's ways to man can never 
be wholly explained by a historical-naturalistic approach; even a term like 
"sociology of religion" must, in view of the secularist origins of the study of 
sociology, have for the faithful of a revealed religion some unpleasant over- 
tones. The Western monotheisms make a place for history, and therefore for 
uncertainty and doubt; but they are obliged to put God and God's work 
ultimately outside history and beyond doubt. Finally, any sort of religious 
belief, including most emphatically our own secular religions like nationalism, 
Marxism, the various positivist or rationalist beliefs stemming mostly from 
the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, gives our judgments on all forms of 
religion an inescapable emotional bias. 

Two closely related distinctions commonly made by students of com- 
parative religion here make good guides in an attempt to sort out the com- 
plexities of primitive religion and morals. First, the distinction between a 
contractual view held by the believer as to his relation with his god or gods, 
and a dependent worshiper's view of these relations. The former is nicely 
summed up in a Latin phrase, do ut des I give that thou mayest give. In this 
view, the believer complied with certain ritual requirements his faith told him 
the god insisted on, and in return the god did what the believer wanted him 
to do; the relation was not unlike that of buyer and seller, with an implied 
contract. The latter is summed up in such a phrase as "prayer of contrition." 
The believer loves, fears, is in awe of a Being whom he would never dream 
of approaching in the mood of a man seeking to make a contract. Second, 
there is the related distinction between magic and religion, or "true" religion. 
In magic the magician claims to have a special knowledge of the ways of the 
gods, or of nature, by which he can produce results; he is a manipulator. In 
religion the priest is the creature of the gods, at most a specially placed inter- 
mediary between the believer and the gods, but wholly dependent on the gods; 
he is, like the laymen from whom in many religions he is hardly distinguish- 
able, a worshiper. 

Now these distinctions are indeed useful; even one who believes himself 
free of Western religious influences should be willing to grant that the attitude 
of the prayerful worshiper is morally superior to that of the self-seeking 
practitioner of contract or magic. But in applying these distinctions to the 
stuff of history the gap between the real and the ideal opens clearly. On this 


A History of Western Morals 

earth, Christian life itself has shown varying admixtures of all these attitudes. 
The familiar Christian opposition of faith and works is at bottom a form of 
the first opposition noted above. Pure faith is pure worship; pure works are 
certainly close to pure contract. Again, historical Christianity has never, for 
the mass of believers, meant the practice of either pure faith or pure works. 
But then, neither has the practice of the earlier polytheisms, one may hazard, 
been purely do ut des. Above all, the historian is confronted with the difficulty 
of finding out the attitudes in matters of this sort of the man in the street, the 
average, the ordinary man. The saint, the noble soul stands out in history at 
least as firmly as the wicked, the villainous. The good, which in the abstract 
or even in the average flesh is perhaps less interesting than the bad, is in its 
exceptional and heroic forms conspicuous indeed. Ikhnaton, the pharaoh who 
tried, apparently, to purge Egyptian polytheism of its grosser elements, 
stands out as a lofty idealist. But for the ordinary Egyptian believer, we tend 
to assume that the formal structure of his religion, the named gods, the 
sacrifices, the whole ritual is an index of his actual state of mind. All these 
factors tend overwhelmingly on the side of polytheistic and magical beliefs. 

Here, for instance, is an Egyptian mother protecting her child from the 
powers of darkness. 

Run out, thou who comest in darkness, who enterest by stealth. . . . 

Comest thou to kiss this child? I will not let thee kiss him. 

Comest thou to soothe him? I will not let thee soothe him. 

Comest thou to harm him? I will not let thee harm him. 

Comest thou to take him away? I will not let thee take him away from me. 

I have made his protection against thee out of Efet-heib, it makes pain; out 
of onions, which harm thee; out of honey which is sweet to (living) men and 
bitter to those who are yonder (the dead) ; out of the evil (parts) of the Ebdu-ftsh; 
out of the jaw of the meret; out of the backbone of the perch. 11 

The latter part of this invocation is obviously magic, and not at all lofty. 
Let us put it beside another survival from the long centuries of Egypt. 


Creator of the germ in woman, 

Who makest seed into men, 

Making alive the son in the body of his mother, 

Soothing him that he may not weep, 

Nurse even in the womb, 

Giver of breath to sustain alive every one that he maketh! 

11 Quoted in Breasted, Dawn of Conscience, p. 248. Chapters 13 and 14 of this 
book give many more examples of magical formulas. 


Origins: The Ancient Near East 

When he descendeth from the body (of his mother) on the 

day of his birth, 

Thou openest his mouth altogether, 
Thou suppliest his necessities. 12 

This passage from a hymn to the sun-god Aton, whom the pharaoh Ikhnaton 
in the fourteenth century B.C. tried to establish as center of a universalist 
monotheistic religion, is quite as clearly high-minded worship. Indeed, 
Breasted quotes this and other passages from the hymn in the midst of parallel 
passages from Psalm 104 of the Old Testament, a device perhaps a bit un- 
fairly helped by the lofty mood which anything approaching the style of the 
King James version automatically produces in the reader of English, but still 
a fair parallel, no mere trick. Magic and religion here stand confronted; they 
are not the same thing. 

And yet something more needs to be said. In morals as hi taste the drastic 
separation of higher and lower must seem to the observer trying to divest 
himself of either morals or taste to hide sometimes a certain underlying set 
of emotions felt both by the experiencer of the high and the experiencer of 
the low. The Egyptian mother was not just muttering a spell; she was singing 
a lullaby. All the first part of her song might well have been sung by a mother 
any time since in the West. There is hi her song maternal love, maternal 
concern over the helplessness of the infant, maternal fear of the unknown. 
These are all emotions that in more dignified expressions we should accept 
as humanly desirable; only yesterday, at least, the child psychologist would 
have said that the existence and strength of such emotions in the mother, 
even though they were accompanied by the use of magic, was much better 
for the child than their absence or weakness in the mother, even though ac- 
companied in the latter instance by the best external help our modern medical 
technology can provide and by good intentions on the part of the mother. 

Moreover, we must note here what seems to be a fact of human conduct, 
however objectionable the mere recognition of this fact may be to many very 
admirable partisans of the best in human life. Words, gestures, rites of all 
sorts once firmly become custom lose the referential immediacy which the 
mind freshly focused on them finds in them. The simple example is afforded 
by the blasphemies of everyday Christian life, which are not blasphemies at 
all, but merely emphatic grunts or groans where there is any real emotion, 
and often no more than obsessively repeated sounds. The Egyptian mother 
conceivably did not even bother to make the witches' brew to which her song 
refers; and almost certainly her state of mind was one that the modern intel- 

12 Breasted, Dawn of Conscience, p. 283. 


A History of Western Morals 

lectual apparently has difficulty in recognizing, a mood of serene and unthink- 
ing acceptance of routine, of custom, of conditioning in almost the Pavlovian 

Finally, to draw what we can from these two contrasting passages, it must 
be noted that there is in the hymn to Aton a touch of what has to be called 
rhetoric. It is a noble rhetoric, but it wipes no infant's nose. Whether you 
will go on and infer that Ikhnaton and the courtiers and priests who helped 
him in his attempt to purify Egyptian religion were perhaps not as good 
parents as our mother with the spell depends a bit on how much of Rousseau 
there is in you. The whole Aton movement, of which we know nothing like 
the details we know for most Christian reform movements, may really have 
been basically political in intent, an effort to centralize and unify a state and 
society that often tended to break apart. It is also possible to see in Ikhnaton 
himself an early example of a moral type we shall not infrequently meet in 
these pages, the idealist of highest ethical standards, the intellectual too pure 
for this harsh world of affairs, the martyr, for his reforms failed miserably; 
and yet also a man by no means without the will to power and the will to be 
admired, and capable, to gain his ends, of actions that look to outsiders 
immoral. Again, we don't really know enough to judge him. I suspect that 
he was an "unprincipled idealist." 13 

The firmest mark the ancient Egyptians have left in the history of culture 
is their extraordinary awareness of I am tempted to jargon, obsession with 
life after death. Some sort of belief in the survival of something of the indi- 
vidual after the obvious death of the body known to common sense is very com- 
mon in all sorts of cultures; and the least patronizing of anthropologists has to 
link this belief with some relatively primitive notions about ghosts and the 
like, and with simple human desires not to die. But the linkage of all this with 
the conduct of the deceased in life on earth is far from universal. With the 
Egyptians tne concept of a divine judgment weighing the good and evil of 
a man's career and assigning reward or punishment after death is clear as 
early as the third millennium B.C. For the upper classes, at least, there were 
elaborate ritual forms involving this principle of moral judgment, as well as 
the well-known efforts to insure at entombment for the dead a physical 
existence as much like the earthly one as possible. The suppliant to the god 
Osiris, the judge of the dead, is made to put the best possible case for his 
innocence. The following passage from the Book of the Dead has a touch of 
the earthly law court which is certainly not in the purest Christian tradition 
13 This useful and penetrating phrase I owe to the late A. Lawrence Lowell. 


Origins: The Ancient Near East 

in these matters, and has a touch of pride offensive to both Jewish and 
Christian developed tradition. Indeed, it must be noted that the Jew at Yom 
Kippur does the exact opposite he recites his sins. So, too, does the Chris- 
tian under confession. Yet the moral code has surely more of the Western, 
if not of the universally human, than the specifically religious psychology of 
the sacrament itself would show. 

Hail to thee, great god, lord of Truth. I have come to thee, my lord, and I am 
led (hither) in order to see thy beauty. I know thy name, I know the names of the 
forty-two gods who are with thee in the Hall of Truth, who live on evil-doers and 
devour their blood, on that day of reckoning character before Wennofer (Osiris), 
Behold, I came to thee, I bring to thee righteousness and I expel for thee sin. I 
have committed no sin against people. ... I have not done evil in the place of 
truth. I knew no wrong. I did no evil thing. ... I did not do that which the god 
abominates. I did not report evil of a servant to his master. I allowed no one to 
hunger I caused no one to weep. I did not murder. I did not command to murder. 
I caused no man misery. I did not diminish food in the temples. I did not decrease 
the offerings of the gods. I did not take away the food-offerings of the dead. I did 
not commit adultery. I did not commit self-pollution in the pure precinct of my 
city-god. I did not diminish the grain measure. I did not diminish the span. I did 
not diminish the land measure. I did not load the weight of the balances. I did not 
deflect the index of the scales. I did not take milk from the mouth of the child. 
I did not drive away the cattle from their pasturage. I did not snare the fowl of the 
gods. I did not catch the fish in their pools. I did not hold back the water in its 
time. I did not dam the running water. 14 

For the rest, it is possible to find in the surviving fragments of Egyptian 
writings a surprisingly representative range of moral attitudes, at least as they 
are reflected in the writings of the moralists. The Maxims of Ptahhotep are 
believed to be the work of a high official of the twenty-seventh century B.C. 
It takes no historical imagination at all to confuse Ptahhotep with Polonius, 
especially as the maxims are his advice to his son. Here is a sample, I trust a 
fair one: 

If thou hast become great after thou wert little, and has gained possessions after 
thou wert formerly in want, ... be not unmindful of how it was with thee be- 
fore. Be not boastful of thy wealth, which has come to thee as a gift of the god. 
Thou art not greater than another like thee to whom the same has happened. 

Be not avaricious in a division, nor greedy (even) for thy (own) goods. Be not 

i* Breasted, Dawn of Conscience, pp. 255-256. The last sentences refer to tampering 
with rules for the use of irrigation water, as wrong today in Arizona as it was thou- 
sands of years ago in Egypt. 


A History of Western Morals 

avaricious towards thy own kin. Greater is the appeal of the gentle than that of 
the strong. 

Follow thy desire (literally "thy heart") as long as thou livest. Do not more than 
is told thee. Shorten not the time of following desire. It is an abomination to en- 
croach upon the time thereof. Take no care daily beyond the maintenance of thy 
house. When possessions come, follow desire, for possessions are not complete 
when he (the owner) is harassed. 

If thou hearkenest to this which I have said to thee, all the fashion of thee will be 
according to the ancestors. As for the righteousness thereof, it is their worth; the 
memory thereof shall not vanish from the mouths of men, because their maxims 
are worthy. 15 

Nor is there lacking in Egypt another moral attitude, one in much greater 
credit among the Western literary, at least, than the admirable commonplaces 
of Polonius. To some ancient Egyptians, as to James Russell Lowell, right 
was ever on the scaifold, wrong forever on the throne. Here again one need 
but sample: 


To whom do I speak today? 

Brothers are evil, 

Friends of today are not of love. 

To whom do I speak today? 

Hearts are thievish, 

Every man seizes his neighbour's goods. 

To whom do I speak today? 

The gentle man perishes, 

The bold-faced goes everywhere. 

To whom do I speak today? 

Robbery is practised, 

Every man seizes his neighbour's goods. 

To whom do I speak today? 

There are no righteous, 

The land is left to those who do iniquity. 

Calamities come to pass today, tomorrow afflictions are not past. All men are 
silent concerning it, (although) the whole land is in great disturbance. Nobody is 

15 Breasted, Dawn of Conscience, pp. 132-137. 


Origins: The Ancient Near East 

free from evil; all men alike do it. Hearts are sorrowful. He who gives commands 
is as he to whom commands are given; the heart of both of them is content. Men 
awake to it in the morning daily, (but) hearts thrust it not away. The fashion of 
yesterday therein is like today. . . . There is none so wise that he perceives, and 
none so angry that he speaks. Men awake in the morning to suffer every day. Long 
and heavy is my malady. The poor man has no strength to save himself from him 
that is stronger than he. It is painful to keep silent concerning the things heard, 
(but) it is suffering to reply to the ignorant man. . . . 16 

The very last passage, attributed to a priest of Heliopolis during the dif- 
ficulties of a period of crisis often called a "feudal age" (second millennium 
B.C.) has clearly the marks of a moralist in the midst of a "time of troubles." 
The priest of Heliopolis is indeed worrying, complaining, but his complaints 
are somehow more dignified than those of the author of "The Corruption of 
Men." The priest, for one thing, appears to be puzzled, indeed to be thinking; 
the author of "The Corruption of Men" is merely relieving himself. 

It is hardly possible to conclude much about the moral ideal of the 
Egyptians. Theirs is a long history, which research has shown to be by no 
means one of frozen uniformity. It is true that there is an early period of 
growth and consolidation, a comparatively long period, broken into peaks 
and valleys of high artistic and literary creativity, and then some dozen final 
centuries of marking time. In terms basically of ethical theory, there is a 
definite development from earlier contractual relations with nature gods who 
get blind obedience from men, to moral relations with gods who approve 
virtue in their worshipers and condemn vice hi them, and thence to the 
monotheistic worship of Aton and the self-conscious wisdom literature from 
which we have just quoted. But there is also in the last millennium or so a 
clear lapse into magic and conformity, a loss of freshness and originality. Even 
at the height of the culture, however, we cannot from present available sources 
outline an Egyptian equivalent of the Hebrew prophet, the Greek beautiful- 
and-good, the European knight of chivalry. 

It is, however, possible to discern some phases of what might be called 
the national character, phases not unimportant for the historian of morals. 
For all their reaching and overreaching toward another world their monu- 
mental art, their preoccupation with the mysteries of death, the touches of 
not accepting the things we Westerners feel we know and accept so well from 
our senses and our science for all this, there is in the Egyptian record a 
strong element of what has to be called "realism," the realism that believes 
itself to be holding a mirror to nature. In sculpture, figures like that of the 
10 Breasted, Dawn of Conscience, pp. 172-179. 


A History of Western Morals 

scribe are familiar; he looks busy, capable, and unworried. 17 And in ethics we 
can always summon up the figure of Ptahhotep of the maxims, maxims much 
more like those of Franklin than like those of Vauvenargues or La Roche- 
foucauld. Moreover, though they had a few brief moments of imperialist 
expansion, though they were a "great power" in the earliest of Western 
balance-of-power systems, the Egyptians were not very good at war, not 
by any means a military people. Of course, a great hot fertile valley does not 
breed warriors this much we must concede to the "materialistic" inter- 
pretation of history. It took invaders from harsher lands, settled in Egypt but 
still remembering their past, to stir her to expansion. But again the material 
on this earth always translates itself into the spiritual, or at least into the 
habitual. The successful long-term militarist is no realist, no accepter of this 
world and these human beings, but a heaven stormer who would shake us all 
out of our senses. A military caste is so unnatural, even in the West, that it 
needs, as we shall see, special educating and conditioning, special moral ideals, 
to keep going. These apparently the Egyptians did not, over long periods, 

They were also gifted inventors, skilled in the practical arts, characteristics 
the American will list at once as signs of a realistic people. The Greeks, as 
we know from Herodotus and others, though they were puzzled by the myste- 
rious sides of what they thought was a priest-ridden society, were greatly 
impressed with the practical side of Egyptian life, with what we should call 
Egyptian know-how. Moreover, these skills were, in the balance, rather based 
on the empirical tradition of the craftsman than on anything close to scientific 
speculation. Astronomy and mathematics owe more to the Babylonians than 
to the Egyptians; the latter were good at medicine, an art that goes naturally 
enough with an acceptance of this world and an unwillingness to leave it long 
for any other. All in all then, it looks as though we can find in ancient Egypt a 
moral attitude, a moral type, very characteristic of the West, though it has 
never perhaps quite set the moral tone anywhere. This is the firmly unheroic, 
indeed not even athletic, unimaginative, undespairing, practical man of com- 
mon sense. He is not quite Sancho Panza (though Cervantes has come close to 
him), not quite Poor Richard (though Franklin himself has touches of him) ; 
Moliere's M. Jourdain misses him as badly as does Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt. 
In fact, the men of letters are not very good at getting at and reporting a 
creature so different from themselves; the artist sometimes does better. Take 
another look at that four-thousand-year-old Egyptian scribe. 

17 See for example Plate 66 in The Art of Ancient Egypt, Vienna, Phaidon Press, 
1936, or Elie Faure, Ancient Art, New York, Garden City Publishing Co., 1937, p. 33. 

Origins: The Ancient Near East 


It is hardly necessary here to pay great attention to ancient Mesopotamia. 
To the general historian, to the historian of culture, there is much in the record 
of great importance. The historian of Western morals can content himself 
with noting that the creation myths of the Chaldeans got incorporated into 
the Hebrew cosmogony though he will, if he is, above all, concerned with 
his own modern world, be even more interested to note the glee with which 
nineteenth-century rationalist opponents of Christianity lighted on evidence 
that God had not begun his work of creation with the Jews. He will note that 
in the Code of Hammurabi (about 1800 B.C.) we have a very early and very 
complete code of laws which, for the moralist, shows the violence and cruelty 
of punishments one would expect, but which also shows clearly the legislator's 
attempt to recognize degrees of guilt, a distinction that implies practical 
recognition of men as independent moral beings, responsible for their acts 
just the kind of recognition Piaget's young children were unable to make. 

Two peoples do stand out in the long and complex history of the Meso- 
potamian state system in the kind of relief that interests the historian of 

The Assyrians, who from the margin of the great Mesopotamian Valley 
came to dominate it in a sudden rise in the eighth century B.C., are known as 
militarists. They seem to have deserved thek historical reputation. Their art 
is highly masculine, bullish and lionish. Their surviving literature is mostly 
imitative of the Babylonian, for, though successful soldiers sometimes come 
to admire literature, they do not often create it. There are surviving inscrip- 
tions left by conquering heroes in which one of the abiding traits of the mili- 
tary caste stands out in almost caricatural sharpness their love of boasting 
by hyperbole, so different from the intellectual's boast by litotes. 

But we do not know about these warriors what the historian of morals 
most needs to know: how they were keyed by education to the hard job of 
professional heroism. It would be nice to know what the Assyrian equivalent 
of the Prussian Junkers' cadet school was like there must have been an 
equivalent but we do not have for them even the kind of information we 
have on the education of the Greek warriors who took Troy. Perhaps the 
Assyrians did not do a good job of military education; at any rate, they held 
their empire briefly, going down to a revival among the Babylonians they 
had conquered perhaps evidence that the Babylonians were not quite as 
corrupt as the Jewish prophets made them out to be. Here are two specimens 
from Assyrian remains: 


A History of Western Morals 

At that time I received the tribute of the land of Isala cattle, flocks and wine. To 
the mountain of Kashiari I crossed, to Kinabu, the fortified city of Hulai I drew 
near. With the masses of my troops and by my furious battle onset I stormed, I 
captured the city; 600 of their warriors I put to the sword; 3,000 captives I burned 
with fire; I did not leave a single one among them alive to serve as a hostage. 
Hulai, their governor, I captured alive. Their corpses I formed into pillars; their 
young men and maidens I burned in the fire. Hulai, their governor, I flayed, his 
skin I spread upon the wall of the city of Damdamusa; the city I destroyed, I dev- 
astated, I wasted with fire. . . . 18 

And now at the command of the great gods my sovereignty, my dominion, and 
my power, are manifesting themselves; I am regal, I am lordly, I am exalted, I am 
mighty, I am honored, I am glorified, I am pre-eminent, I am powerful, I am 
valiant, I am lion-brave, and I am heroic! (I), Assur-Nasir-Pal, the mighty king, 
the king of Assyria, chosen of Sin, favorite of Anu, beloved of Adad, mighty one 
among the gods, I am the merciless weapon that strikes down the land of his 
enemies. . . , 19 

The Babylonians, especially after their final conquest of the Jews in the 
sixth century B.C., do appear as the first example of the sensual, corrupt, 
materialistic big-city men. Clearly, the Jewish priestly men of letters to whom 
we owe our impressions of the Whore of Babylon were not engaged in an 
effort at objective analysis of a culture. But we do know that the religion of 
the Babylonians was a polytheism that goes with settled agriculturalists of 
such early areas of civilization, with a fertility cult, ritual magic, and a gen- 
eral lack of high-mindedness. The Babylonians seem to have been devoted 
to business. We simply do not have the evidence in the scattered sources to 
hazard a guess as to whether the merchant was in any sense considered an 
admirable person, a moral ideal; probably not. But it is clear that the Baby- 
lonians led the kind of life that stank in the nostrils of the puritanical Jews 
of the Captivity, that the Jews felt toward them the righteous horror of the 
monotheist for the polytheist, the kind of horror felt today by the Moslem 
in India for Hindu beliefs and practices, mixed with the kind of indignation 
Martin Luther felt in the streets of Renaissance Rome. The Babylonians, 
alas, have left no good record of their own feelings about the Jews. One may 
guess that they were not greatly afflicted with feelings of guilt. 

18 D. D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia, Chicago, University of 
Chicago Press, p. 146. Assur-Nasir-Pal from the pavement slabs of the entrance to the 
temple of Urta at Calah (Nimrud) . 

19 Ibid. Pavement slabs as above, following the invocation to Urta. 

Origins: The Jews and the Greeks 

THE JEWS must bulk very large in any history of Western morals. The very 
familiar notion that modern Western culture has two roots, one in Judaea 
and one in Greece its most representative statement is perhaps in the works 
of Matthew Arnold is one that must annoy the revisionist historian, and any 
inquirer distrustful of formulas, anxious to qualify, to note variants, to avoid 
nice big ideas that simplify what he knows to be reality. Nevertheless, the 
formula keeps cropping up even in the mind that tries to reject it. We shall 
have to return to it. Here we shall be concerned with the very difficult prob- 
lem of what the morals of the Jews really were in the centuries before the 
prophets, before the defeats which marked so deeply the minds of the in- 
tellectual leaders of the nation. But the problem can be put more sharply: 
other peoples in that cockpit of early international conflict, the great valleys 
of Mesopotamia and Egypt and the connecting fertile crescent, were beaten, 
lost their independence, were absorbed by their conquerors, died and were 
forgotten, producing no Isaiah, no Jesus, no Maimonides, and, very definitely, 
nothing like a Theodor Herzl or a Chaim Weizmann. 

For the early Jews, our surviving record is, in a sense, no longer frag- 
mentary. Yet for the historian the Old Testament is about as full of pitfalls 
as a source can be. In the form we have, it was clearly edited by various 
priestly hands and at various times, most notably after the great disasters 
of the Jewish "national state" in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., but con- 
tinuing on down to the second century B.C., commonly given as the date of 
the Book of Esther, the latest of the Old Testament. It can be analyzed into 


A History of Western Morals 

constituent elements; indeed, scholars are nowadays in substantial agreement 
as to its composition, subject to the usual scholarly debate over detail, an 
agreement that should do much to refute the notion that there is nothing 
cumulative in humanistic scholarly studies. There are elements of a cosmog- 
ony which looks to be substantially a development of old Babylonian cos- 
mological myths, including that much worked-over topic the Flood. There are 
elements of what it is not unfair to call an epic of the heroic ages, the "Jew- 
ish Iliad," with its echoes of the wandering days of the Hebrews before they 
settled in Canaan, and with a fine central theme, the story of Moses and the 
deliverance from Egypt. There are elements of a running historical account 
(the Books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) clearly not the work of 
any "lay" historian like Herodotus, indeed, in a sense even more obviously 
"clerical" and anonymous, than the work of medieval monkish chroniclers, 
which is perhaps the best Western parallel familiar to most of us. There are 
elements of what we are accustomed to call, simply, "literature" the poetry 
of the Psalms, the aphoristic wisdom of the Book of Proverbs, stories like 
those of Ruth and Job, didactic, philosophical, poetic, patriotic, but, still, 
stories. There are the books rather tamely called the "prophetic books," 
which if you can forgive the kind of generalization that laughs at distribu- 
tion curves are the heart, the essence, of what the Jew has meant to West- 
ern history. And, most important for us in this chapter, there are, especially 
in the first five books, known as the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, 
Numbers, Deuteronomy), a record of theological growth toward monothe- 
ism, an elaborate set of liturgical and other priestly rules, which make up the 
Law, and important ethical writings of which the heart is the Ten Com- 

The major difficulty for us is to discern the earlier Hebrews through the 
later editing. No one seriously maintains that the editors faked, doctored, or 
invented; bad as was the world for these Jews of the centuries of disaster, it 
was not quite an Orwellian world. But there were no complicated techniques 
of historical criticism known to them; these editors could not be what we 
hopefully call "historically minded." They wrote with a present much in 
mind. That present they reflected back as, for example, high ethical mono- 
theism into an age when the recently nomadic Jews could hardly have con- 
ceived of a single God, not even their jealous tribal god Jehovah. 1 

1 The Hebrew form is, of course, Yahweh, or, more pedantically transliterated, YHWH. 
But I cannot quite give up a form sacred not only to Christians, but, as Ethan Allen's 
famous use of it at Ticonderoga shows, to anti-Christians. 


Origins: The Jews and the Greeks 

Yet it is quite possible that the general impression left by the last two or 
5e centuries of Western scholarly work on the early Jews exaggerates the 

between the Jews of Moses' day and those of the last few centuries B.C. 
the English-speaking world in particular, anti-Christian debunkers, who 
e been numerous and vocal, have enjoyed showing just how different the 
gion of the Old Testament really was from what it appeared to be as seen 
n the Baptist Sunday schools of Birmingham, England, and Birmingham, 
bama. Jehovah appeared in the pages of these debunkers as a horrid tribal 
mt-god, the Jews as primitives somehow nonetheless already endowed 
i many of the traits modern anti-Semitism finds in them. They were al- 
ly unnaturally clannish, unable to get on with their neighbors, addicted at 
e to a particularly libidinous sex life in polygamy and to a kill-joy puritan- 
, cruel and treacherous in war (the story of Judith, for instance), double- 
ssers (Moses in Egypt, the tale of Joseph and his brothers), perversely 
mious, as witness the complexity of their Law; in sum, rather worse than 
st early peoples in their conduct, whited sepulchers, in fact, to quote a 
:h later Jewish writer. 2 

Even when the animus of such accounts is allowed for, even when one 
5 simply that the historical evidence makes it seem that the Hebrews were 

of the nomadic tribes of Semitic origin in the arid or semiarid regions 
and the Nile-Mesopotamian "cradle of civilization," who like so many 
r so many centuries penetrated these areas and were absorbed by the 
pies and cultures they found there, the basic question still remains: Why 
the Jews and their history part of our lives today, while the many known 

the many more unknown tribes that came out of the desert or the moun- 
s to the valleys and the fertile crescent are at best part of specialized his- 
zal scholarship? 

A good answer, that God chose the Jews, is one impossible for me, and 
jly for many of my readers, not all by any means necessarily in these days 

e above is, I admit, synthetic, but I hope not a caricature. Almost all writers hostile 
thodox Christianity since the Enlightenment have seemed to enjoy insisting on the 
es of early Jewish life most inconsistent with the spirit of the Beatitudes. The Nie- 
lean H. L. Mencken will do as a sample. See his lively but too damned sensible 
tise on the Gods, New York, Knopf, 1930, and Treatise on Right and Wrong, New 
:, Knopf, 1934, both passim or as the indexes under "Jews" and "Yahweh" indicate, 
following passage is typical: "The Old Testament, as everyone who has looked into 
aware, drips with blood; there is indeed no more bloody chronicle in all the litera- 
of the world. Half of the hemorrhage is supplied by the goyim who angered Yahweh 
3uting His Chosen People, and the other half issues from living creatures who went 
i to death that He might be suitably nourished and kept in good humour." Treatise 
<e Gods, p. 158. 


A History of Western Morals 

bad religious Christians or bad religious Jews. A sort of background for an 
answer can be found in a familiar, if dangerously broad, generalization well 
known to the contemporary sociologist of religion. The early settled agricul- 
tural societies tended toward lush polytheisms based on a tamed "nature," 
reflecting the preoccupation of such societies with the comforts of the flesh, 
with the need for vegetable and animal fertility, with trade, property, and 
the like; the early nomads, closer to an untamed "nature" and to the ways of 
preagricultural hunters and food gatherers, tended toward a more austere 
polytheism of sky-gods and mountain-gods (among the latter, old Jehovah, 
not just a mountain, but a volcano!) . As the chief or father god of these pas- 
toral peoples grew in importance, he tended to become the sole god of mono- 
theism, though originally the sole god of the tribe or people only, not by any 
means a universal God. 3 

There is something in this distinction between the religions and morals 
of agricultural peoples on one hand and those of pastoral peoples on the 
other, especially if it is not held as a simple dualism. It becomes especially 
misleading, however, if it is developed into a Spenglerian metaphor of West- 
ern religion emerging from the shadowy desert "cave" of a Semitic Near East. 
Perhaps Jehovah, the Father of Jesus, and Allah did start their careers in the 
desert or semiarid country, but so, too, did many Semitic Baals who never 
got beyond their own little shrines. The Phoenicians and their Carthaginian 
heirs, also Semitic, continued, into their greatness, devotion to their Moloch, 
their graven images, their by no means higher religion. Nor did the Aryan 
and other invaders from the north, who, if they did not emerge from deserts, 
were surely pastoral nomads originally, attain to high ethical monotheism. 
Their sky-gods and other thunder wielders never became more than firsts 
among equals. The most famous of them, Zeus- Jupiter, became, as befits the 
king amongst his nobles after the nobles have acquired arts and letters, rather 
less than that, to judge from recorded squabbles on Olympus. 

There is no single broad explanation either of Jewish survival as a people 
or of the Jewish achievement of a religion that is a base of Christianity the 
two achievements being, indeed, related. The foundations were surely laid 
before the Babylonian Captivity began in 586 B.C., and some of them go back 
to the desert, back to Abraham and the other patriarchs. What was built up 
in the earlier centuries and in the successful establishment of Israel was a 

3 On this contrast of the gods of settled agricultural and wandering pastoral peoples, see 
a good resume in Christopher Dawson, The Age of the Gods, Boston, Houghton Mifflin. 
1920, Chap. XL 


Origins: The Jews and the Greeks 

society extraordinarily knit together in self-consciousness. The phrase the 
bluff Menckens have had such an ironic time with the Chosen People 
deserves to be taken in full sociological seriousness. Here it is in all its clarity 
from the Pentateuch: 

... the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, 
above all people that are upon the face of the earth. The Lord did not set his love 
upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for 
ye were the fewest of all people: but because the Lord loved you, and because 
he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the Lord 
brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of 
bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 4 

It will not do to assume that the feelings behind this passage were limited 
to the priestly intellectuals who wrote it. The Hebrew religion as it developed 
spread these feelings to the common people. Moreover, the Jews were, in 
spite of their quarrels among themselves, their frequent backslidings into 
idolatry the "familiar spirits, and the wizards, and the teraphim, and the 
idols and all the abominations" one of the great religiously and morally dis- 
ciplined peoples of history. Most of the well-known analysis that Polybius 
and, after him, Machiavelli give of the role religion played in the disciplining 
of the early Romans applies to the Jews. In addition, the Jews had, in the 
Biblical account of creation, in the great epic of the exile and the exodus, in 
all their early national literature, an emotionally and intellectually satisfying 
justification for the discipline to which they submitted no, "submitted" is 
here the natural and wrong word of a culture-bound twentieth-century Ameri- 
can; let us say "which they embraced." Finally, there is the possibility that 
Moses was a great man, not just a myth, and that in the very critical years 
when the Hebrews were becoming the Jews of Israel they were well served 
by a series of good leaders. 

Above all, however, it will not do to assume, as we of this day of national- 
ism and racism are inclined to, that the Chosen People felt themselves chosen 
unconditionally, by themselves and for themselves, to satisfy individual pride 
in the pooled pride of the in-group. The conscientious Jew from the time of 
the exile on, at least, and, we may assume, from much earlier, felt that the 
Jews were chosen for something, chosen as witnesses for God's will toward 
men, chosen to set the example of a moral life. The Jew and, here, the 
pagan-loving, Greek-loving critic who dislikes the Jewish element in our tra- 
dition as "repressive" or "puritanical" is not without some justification in fact 

4 Deuteronomy 7:6-8. 


A History of Western Morals 

for his attitude, though he usually neglects this same side of his beloved 
Greeks this Jew did go through life worrying about his righteousness, did 
submit himself to extraordinary ritual tasks which carried specific moral 
implications, did, in the matter particularly of sex relations, spell out for 
himself a code that fully took account of the grave complexities and diffi- 
culties men and women have with that obstinately "unnatural," that is, moral, 
phase of human conduct. The Jew, clearly, did not grow up in the South Seas, 
nor in the pages of an Enlightened eighteenth-century devotee of nature's 
simple plan. Our real feelings and our customary behavior in matters of sex 
continue to bear firmly the mark of Jewish experience. 5 

Thus endowed in the course of the centuries, of which the Pentateuch 
and the early historical books are a record with an unusually closely meshed 
cosmogony, theology, liturgy, priesthood, and received historical epic culmi- 
nating in the concept of the Chosen People, with a moral code and moral 
habits in turn closely meshed with the above and culminating in a tight na- 
tional discipline, with a national culture hero like Moses, the Jews became 
the people of Israel. But and this is most important they never became, 
like the Romans, a successful expansionist people. Even at its height, the 
kingdom of Solomon was, beside such great powers as Egypt, Assyria, or 
Babylonia, a minor state. The Jews could keep the kind of discipline that is 
always lost in a successful imperialist expansion. Their history had prepared 
them for their extraordinary feat of survival. 6 

In the face of this survival, the harshness of early Jewish culture is not of 

5 On Jewish moral puntanism, I suggest the reader not directly familiar with the sources 
go to them, if only briefly for such a good sample as Deuteronomy, chapters 21-28. If 
in this reading he finds only absurdities, irrationality, superstition, unnatural restraints, 
if he thinks himself superior to all this, then I suggest he had better not bother to go 
on with this book. He has shown himself too enlightened in the narrow rationalist 
sense to profit from the record of the long centuries of the unenlightened. 

6 An American can perhaps best get some feeling for how the Jews, molded by a 
consciousness of being chosen, by a firm belief in theologically explained history, by 
a discipline strengthened by the resistance of neighboring peoples, by a moral code that 
set them off from their neighbors, and by gifted leadership, survived as a people if he 
will reflect on the achievement of the Latter-day Saints. In the midst of an American 
democratic society that presses and persuades to conformity, that "assimilates'* at least 
as rapidly and completely as any early civilized society could, the Mormons have 
for a century maintained themselves as a peculiar people. I am not suggesting that 
the Mormons are not at all like other Americans, but merely that they have preserved 
a corporate identity of their own. Nor do I suggest that they will preserve even that 
as long as the Jews have theirs. But, for the present, I submit that not even the firmest 
devotee of the explanation of history by geographical environment or by any other 
simple "materialistic" factor can get at the moral difference between those two geo- 
graphical twins Utah and Nevada or those older ones Israel and Phoenicia. 


Origins: The Jews and the Greeks 

great importance. A cultivated, artistic, peaceful people, a people smilingly 
accepting a world in the balance to be enjoyed such, for instance, as from 
their artifacts alone we perhaps mistakenly picture those delightful Minoans 
could not have done what the Jews did in Israel. You need at least an island 
for such a delightful culture, a Crete if not a Bali. There is a streak of austerity 
in these early Jews, not an ascetic turning away from the delights of the flesh 
(the Song of Solomon is surely concerned with sex in a way well short of 
sublimation) but, rather, a certain heaviness of spirit. The laughter of the gods 
is not there, nor even the smiles of men. 

The great moral code of the Jews is still taught most Westerners in their 
childhood. Here are the Ten Commandments: 

1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. 

2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any 
thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the 
water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve 
them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the 
fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that 
hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and 
keep my commandments. 

3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will 
not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. 

4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do 
all thy work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it 
thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy man- 
servant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within 
thy gates: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all 
that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the 
sabbath day, and hallowed it. 

5. Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land 
which the Lord thy God giveth thee. 

6. Thou shalt not kill. 

7. Thou shalt not commit adultery. 

8. Thou shalt not steal. 

9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. 

10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neigh- 
bour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, 
nor any thing that is thy neighbour's. 7 

This is not the code of pastoral nomads, and it could not have been de- 

7 Exodus 20:3-17. I number in the common Protestant tradition. Roman Catholics 
and Lutherans combine 1 and 2, and separate 10 into two by distinguishing between 
wife and goods as objects of covetousness. Thus, allusion to, say, the "sixth com- 
mandment" is in itself misleading; it may refer to adultery or murder. 


A History of Western Morals 

livered to a historical Moses at the time and place described in Exodus. Its 
feeling for private property such as "thy neighbor's house" even the Sab- 
batarian provisions of the fourth commandment and its firm monotheistic 
theology, are the work of a people already settled, and could hardly have come 
directly out of the desert. In spite of the harshness of the second command- 
ment that phrase "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children untc 
the third and fourth generation of them that hate me" has long been par- 
ticularly offensive to modern Western liberals of all sorts the code as 2 
whole is not a cruel, harsh, or "primitive" one. Granted that it is in form an 
imposed and absolutist code, it has nonetheless been able to survive with 
honor among modern peoples who do not really feel it as either, but as some- 
thing springing from the experience of the race. 8 The code has quite simply 
been part of our lives, not something outside us, nor outside nature. It seems 
likely that over the long centuries some men and women have halted on the 
brink of theft, or perjury, or even adultery, have "resisted temptation," be- 
cause they had been "brought up on" the Ten Commandments or so it must 
seem to all but disastrously naive deniers of the power of the Word. 

The Ten Commandments of course by no means exhaust the ethical 
teachings of the Old Testament. The books of the Pentateuch, variously 
edited as they were, contain a really extraordinary variety of ethical precepts 
and commands. Leviticus itself, the most priestly of the books, has not only 
ritual precept after ritual precept, on diet, cleanliness, sacrifices, and the 
like, the Law as duly spelled out under the authority of Moses; it has also 
a great many ferocious laws on matters sexual, prescribing death penalties 
for a great and specific range of spelled-out misconduct from adultery to 
sodomy and incest. It has much on keeping the Sabbath, and on preserving 
the in-groupness of Israel. But it also has, among many prescriptions that 
are essentially concerned with social and political relations part of the 
fields and the gleanings shall be left "for the poor and the stranger," for in- 
stance a sentence that the evangelists were to echo word for word: "Love 
thy neighbor as thyself." 9 

*W. T. Stace makes a common, but also misleading, distinction, to which I shall re- 
turn, between the two sources of European [Western] ethical thinking which he calls 
the Palestinian "impositionist" that morality is imposed on man from outside human- 
ness and the Greek 'Immanentist" that morality grows out of humanness. The 
Destiny of Western Man, New York, Reynal and Hitchcock, 1942, Chap. I. 
9 Leviticus 19:18. See also Matthew 19:19; Luke 10:27. Chapters 19 and 20 of 
Leviticus are a good cross section of these priestly ethics. There are also some fine 
''primitive" prescriptions in Exodus 21 following immediately after the Ten Com- 


Origins: The Jews and the Greeks 

Not even from the body of the Old Testament we are in this section con- 
cerned with (the books from Genesis to Isaiah) is it quite possible to draw 
an embodied Jewish ideal person. Moses was, as we have noted, a culture 
hero, but it does not seem as though the Jew of those years would quite dare 
to think of himself as being "like" Moses in the way an American might want 
to be like Lincoln. It is not that early peoples were incapable of conceiving 
what I have called the moral human ideal; as we shall see in the very next 
section of this chapter, such an ideal emerges very clearly from the pages of 
Homer. Nor are the elements lacking from which some generalizations can 
be made; they just do not fit neatly together. Job's final surrender to a God 
beyond any possible formal and logical theodicy is surely too complete to be 
Western, or, even in the ordinary sense, Jewish. The wisdom of Proverbs 
and, still more, that of the Protestant-rejected Ecclesiasticus seem to err too 
far on the other side from that of the Book of Job, that of irony, worldly 
wisdom, intellectual disgust with the ways of man (and, perhaps, of God?). 
The Book of Psalms is probably the best source for the moral "tone," and 
the moral "style," of conventional Jewry before the downfall of the two 
kingdoms. It is grave, pious, conventional, not heaven-storming, but fully 
aware that the Way and the Law are not easy to keep. The figure of walking 
"uprightly," "in the way of the Lord," "righteously," and the like is 
common in both the Old and the New Testaments. It is a good figure, sug- 
gesting effort but not strain; above all, carrying with it no menaces, no com- 
mands from above. Here is the beginning of the Fifteenth Psalm: 

Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? 

Who shall dwell in thy holy hill? 

He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, 

And speaketh the truth in his heart. 10 

Yet, to point up our difficulties in generalizing about the moral tone of 
early Jewish life, this very same psalm turns at once to the negatives, to the 
denials unaccompanied, it is true, by any threats beyond the very common 
Old Testament coupling of "Lord" and "fear," but still negatives, still threats: 

He that backbiteth not with his tongue, 
Nor doeth evil to his neighbour, 
Nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbour. 
In whose eyes a vile person is contemned; 
But he honoureth them that fear the Lord. 

10 Psalm 15: 1, 2. And see C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, New York, Harcourt 
Brace, 1958. 


A History of Western Morals 

He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not. 

He that putteth not out his money to usury, 

Nor taketh reward against the innocent. 

He that doeth these things shall never be moved. 11 

There is an easy test of the tone of the Old Testament. Take any con- 
cordance to the Bible, and glance at the entries under the neighboring words 
"laugh" and "law" and their various grammatical forms. "Laugh" is snowed 
under by "law"; if you subtract from the instances under "laugh" those in 
which the authors of the King James version translated by "laugh to scorn" 
a single Hebrew word perhaps better translated "mock," and if you also 
subtract the ironic use of "laugh" in the wisdom literature, you have very 
little real and joyful laughter left. 12 Such a test must not be taken to mean 
that the Jews spent their time in lofty misery, that they never enjoyed them- 
selves simply and thoughtlessly. The Old Testament is, after all, a product of 
the literary, the priestly literary, and not a piece of social-psychological re- 
search into attitudes and mental health. Moreover, it is all we have. It is 
arresting to reflect that if all we had for the early Greeks was the Works and 
Days of Hesiod, we should have to conclude that their hearts, too, were over- 
whelmed with the harshness of this world. 

Yet even a fragment of the accepted great literature of a people is not 
altogether misleading as to their moral ideals and even as to their conduct. A 
later age that found of all American writings only, let us say, a copy of 
Walden would by no means understand what we had been like, not even what 
the old Yankees had been like; but if the age were still Western, still inter- 
ested in history, it would not be wholly without understanding of us. It would 
in Thoreau's work have a good clue to the exaggerated, almost, but not 
quite, unlivable form the eternal coexistence of Don Quixote and Sancho 
Panza takes with us Americans. The first twenty books of the Old Testament, 
as we have noted, are a great deal more than a fragment; edited and com- 
posed as they were, they are less and more than an anthology, a "course" in 
Jewish cultural history. 

From them there stands out clearly a feeling of need for discipline, for 
the Law, an acceptance of the need to struggle against men and nature, an 
attitude the New Testament often reflects: "Because strait is the gate, and 

11 Psalm 15: 3-5. 

12 Examples: **The virgin the daughter of Zion hath despised thee, and laughed thee to 
scorn" (II Kings 19:21); "Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful; And the end of 
that mirth is heaviness" (Proverbs 14:13). 


Origins: The Jews and the Greeks 

narrow is the way. . . ," 13 Some of these feelings are those of any early 
people struggling for a living in a harsh environment. Canaan flowed with 
milk and honey only in comparison with the desert. The Jews did not have it 
easy. But however you care to explain them, those feelings are there, so put, 
so preserved, that they have guided some of the time, and for some of the 
people lives in lands that flowed with richer stuff than milk or honey. 

To conclude, there is need to make briefly a few cautionary remarks. The 
early Jews had the concept of an afterlife, and of a heaven and a heU; but it 
was not a firm concept, let alone a preoccupation, like that of the Egyptians 
and that of the early Christians. The Jewish sheol, or hell, often seems no 
more than that of their Babylonian neighbors, a colorless limbo, a threat, but 
not a vigorous one. They had a firm notion of sin, a word that bulks large in 
these early books of the Old Testament. But even a hasty reading confirms 
the commonplace; sin is, before the prophetic writings, no Calvinistic or 
Freudian horror within a man, but a simple transgression of a clear law, a 
crime against the ordinances of the City of God, disarmingly illustrated in 
the words attributed to Moses: "And I took your sin, the calf which ye had 
made, and burnt it with fire, and stamped it, and ground it very small, even 
until it was small as dust." 14 Again, there is not much use trying to revise the 
commonplace: up to the time of the prophets, Jehovah (the Lord, God) is 
indeed the sole god of Israel. There is no solid evidence that the Jews be- 
lieved the gods of their neighbors to be nonexistent, or in any way fakes. 
These gods quite literally did not compete with Jehovah, had nothing to do 
with him, except indirectly as their adherents tried to tempt the Jews to go 
whoring after other gods. It seems to me probable that these early Jews did 
not even think of Jehovah as "superior" to other peoples' gods, for they 
could hardly have yet had the modern national habit at its extreme, ap- 
parently, today with us and with the Russians of thinking always in terms 
of a kind of big-league international competition in everything. Finally, it 
need hardly be said that these Jews differ in many important ways from 
their modern heirs. They were still farmers and herdsmen, the merchants 
among them much less important than those of the Babylonians, for instance. 
The history of their kingdoms is the history of political rivalries and political 
crimes; these Jews were no lotus-eaters. But they do not seem, to use a 
current word of social psychology, a very competitive society; or their 
society is by no means the ritually combative society we find among 

is Matthew 7: 14. 

i* Deuteronomy 9:21. 


A History of Western Morals 

the Greeks. Nor are these Jews notably hard workers, that is, they work no 
harder than their rough land and primitive technology make necessary; there 
is no Calvinistic cult of work, and the famous text "Go to the ant, thou slug- 
gard; consider her ways, and be wise" is rather out of line. 15 Finally, not 
even in the wisdom literature is there much trace of two attitudes, two per- 
sonalities, we know in modern Jewry: the witty, cynical, sentimental Heine 
and the rationalist, optimistic, enlightened, reforming Eduard Bernstein. 
True, these types belong to a much later and in some ways more advanced 
and more complicated society. But is it not also possible that the two are 
European, indeed German, types, not Jews at all? 


The Greeks, too, were a people of the Book. Their Bible was Homer. We need 
not here concern ourselves with the problems, interesting though they are, 
which have long occupied scholars: Was there an individual Homer who 
composed these epics, or are they the work of, to us, forever anonymous pro- 
fessional bards over many generations? If there was a Homer, did he compose 
both the Iliad and the Odyssey? Have the two poems perhaps quite different 
sources? There are many more questions. Scholars are agreed that both poems 
were handed down in oral form by professional bards for several centuries; 
they are reasonably well agreed that the written version of the Iliad the 
Athenians used and which has come down to us was brought to Athens in the 
sixth century B.C. and may even have been given something like its final shape 
in Ionia by a "Homer" of the ninth century. There is great debate as to how 
much interpolation, how much editing the texts of both poems underwent 
before they were reasonably fixed by writing, as to how good "history" (in 
contrast to "poetry") they are, and as to just what society and what culture 
they came out of. It would seem pretty clear that the poems were not nearly 
as much altered by later and interested emendations as were the books of the 
Old Testament which record the Jewish epic; and it is not very risky to use 
them, with due caution, as documents "reflecting" the moral life of the Greek 
aristocracy of the Mycenaean Age just before the last or Dorian wave of 
Greek invasions or no later than just after those invasions, that is, of the 
thirteenth to the eleventh centuries B.C. Achilles was, roughly, a contempo- 
rary of Moses. 

15 Proverbs 6:6. 


Origins: The Jews and the Greeks 

We may find it difficult to realize that the poems of Homer, and, more 
especially, the Iliad, which to us are "literature," certainly better, greater, 
than Hiawatha, but, like that poem, "literature," were as much "religion" to 
the Greeks as was the Bible to the Jews. But the educated Greek of the great 
ages, and right on to the triumph of Christianity in the West, was brought up 
on Homer. Plato himself, not, for reasons of principle, an admirer of poets, 
though he was, of course, one himself, called Homer the "educator of 
Greece." 16 It is true that the poems were composed to amuse and elevate, 
and certainly to hold the attention of, audiences of nobles, squires, and re- 
tainers who were presumably in no mood to be preached at, let alone indoc- 
trinated with a theology. The priestly touch unmistakable even in the most 
straightforwardly historical books of the Old Testament, bloody and warlike 
though they are, is not in these poems. Indeed, Oswald Spengler insists that 
Homer was what we should call an antisacerdotalist, a fine, free, noble 
warrior-spirit contemptuous of the weak, womanish, priestly intellectual, in 
fact, an anticipation of Schopenhauer-Nietzsche-Spengler, as masculine as a 
Mediterranean man could be. 17 

One may suspect that even the bards of the Greek heroic age, however, 
were modern enough, intellectuals enough, even human enough, to wish to 
improve the morals of their audience. There is, incongruous though the 
notion may seem, a good deal of the didactic in Homer; Homer knew well 
how a gentleman ought to behave, and he keeps reminding his audience of 
what they, too, well knew. Of course, he was not directly concerned with 
problems of cosmogony, theology, or even of that most universal element 
of all religions including the Marxist, which passionately justifies the ways 
of the god Dialectical Materialism to man that is, a theodicy. Yet it is 
equally clear that Homer was no more making a purely literary use of the 

is On this see H. I. Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity, trans, by G. Lamb, 
New York, Sheed and Ward, 1956, Chap. I. This work is a great deal more than a 
narrow and conventional interpretation of its title would indicate. It is, in fact, an 
excellent history of morals in antiquity as a history of education should be. Herbert 
J. Muller, The Loom of History, New York, Harper, 1958, Chap. Ill, is very good on 

i? Q. Spengler, The Decline of the West, New York, Knopf, 1950, Vol. II, p. 281. 
Alas, "Homer," like these Germans, probably never cracked an enemy's skull. Still, 
the purely literary fighter, his mind berserk, his bottom quietly chaired, is, I think, in 
the West a product of the post-Christian and, in our modern world, increasingly sharp 
conflict between the two aristocracies of the sword and the pen. I do not think Homer 
felt any contrast between the world of the gods and the world of Achilles and his 
peers; in fact, I do not think he was much like Spengler. 


A History of Western Morals 

Olympian gods than were the authors and amenders of the Pentateuch so 
using Jehovah. Perhaps that last is not put sharply enough. Homer believed 
in Zeus and Athena and the rest. 

Of these Greek gods of Olympus, it is often said that, especially in 
Homeric times, but to a degree right down through to the end of Greco- 
Roman paganism, they were just like human beings, only more powerful, 
that the world of Olympus was simply a mirror image of this world, even a 
kind of huge realistic folk novel, in which the gods conducted themselves as 
human beings do in our realistic fiction that is to say, rather worse than in 
real life. This is largely true, but it must not be interpreted as meaning that 
the Greek Olympian religion "taught" its believers that men could and should 
imitate the ways of the gods. The early Christian apologists were very fond of 
using the argument that the pagans could hardly help lying, cheating, whoring, 
and the like, because the gods did so. 

Nor is it difficult to show why the worshippers of the gods cannot be good and 
just. For how shall they abstain from shedding blood who worship bloodthirsty 
deities, Mars and Bellona? Or how shall they spare their parents who worship 
Jupiter, who drove out his father? . . . how shall they uphold chastity who wor- 
ship a goddess who is naked, an adulteress, and who prostitutes herself as it were 
among the gods. . . . Among these things is it possible for men to be just, who, 
although they are naturally good, would be trained to injustice by the very gods 
themselves? 18 

It was no doubt a good argument, and like most such arguments more 
consoling to the already converted than actually useful as a means of convert- 
ing unbelievers. But it was poor history, poor social psychology. The devotees 
of these early Western polytheistic faiths were by no means as inclined to try 
to make their own conduct godlike as are the believers of our modern higher 
religions. The central Greek concept of hubris, to which we shall return, 
warned men firmly that the gods punished such presumption as prideful 
indeed. The magic world of charms, incantations, and the like existed in 
Greece as the world of astrology, fortunetelling, and similar charlatanries 
exist with us, definitely below the accepted religion of dignified worship. 

*8 Lactantius, Divine Institutes, in Works, trans, by W, Fletcher, Edinburgh, 1871, 
Vol. I, p. 316. I admit that our Western training makes us feel that Lactantius must 
be substantially right. I would not wish to overdo anti-intellectualism by denying 
that there is any connection between what men believe about the supernatural and 
their actual conduct But I feel sure that Lactantius is wrong about those who are 
"naturally good"; the quiet, faithful Roman wife even in the Late Empire was not 
driven by her ideas about the gods to an imitatio Veneris. 


Origins: The Jews and the Greeks 

True, lovers might appeal to Aphrodite but not quite at the purely magic 
level of the philter. Lovers later were to appeal to the Virgin Mary. 19 

In this whole problem, the intellectualist error that the Greek thought 
cheating a moral good because his god Hermes was a slippery customer (or, 
as we shall note shortly, because his hero Odysseus was one also) is indeed 
an error. But so, too, is the anti-intellectualist error that the kinds of gods, 
the kinds of heroes, a man believes in has no effect on bis morals or his 
conduct, no relation with them. Unfortunately, there is no neat mathematical 
formula for striking a mean between the intellectualist and anti-intellectualist 
position, which mean is an accurate account of reality. There is a relation 
between what men think the gods are like and what they think good and evil, 
but it is a relation that varies with time, place, and persons. It is no doubt a 
variation within limits; the ideals of both good and evil tend clearly to exceed 
the limits of all but the most newsworthy real. And always there is that 
pressure rather, that suasion of ritual, habit, custom, institutions whereby 
the ideal gets short-circuited out of the human conscious, where it is a 
stimulant, and into less noble parts of the mind, where it is a sedative. 

There is, indeed, in the relations between mortals and gods the element of 
contract: do ut des. But there is more. Odysseus is a favorite, a protege, of 
Athena, who intrigues for him at court, struggles with Poseidon, whom 
Odysseus has offended, exults in his successes, mourns his misfortunes. 
Athena is the patron saint of Odysseus; but Odysseus has to deserve her sup- 
port, not just by ritual acts, but by being the kind of man Athena approves, 
wise, resourceful, by Christian ethical standards often unscrupulous, but 
never stupidly unscrupulous, persistent in the face of setbacks, courageous in 
combat. The reciprocal relation of contract is a moral one; men must merit 
the support of the gods, and the gods must merit the support of men. 

They are both aristocracies. Homer is not really concerned with the 
common people, the demos. Eumaeus, the faithful swineherd in the Odyssey, 
is the only conspicuous commoner in the epics; and he is there to point up, 
it is true in almost heroic degree, the standard virtues of the commoner in a 
noble household. The warriors who fought the Trojan War were officers and 
gentlemen, among themselves, as such, equals, and meeting in council to 
make important decisions. Their leaders are the characters we know by name, 
Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus, and the rest, older, wiser chieftains, but 

19 1 do not write the last sentence with intent to shock. I do not equate Aphrodite 
and the Virgin they are very different But part of their provinces in human terms 
do overlap. 


A History of Western Morals 

hardly, even in the later medieval European sense, monarchs. And, above all, 
there is the young Achilles, the hero, in no mere literary sense, of the Iliad. 

Achilles is the man all of Homer's listeners would like to be, the man of 
arete. The untranslatable word comes out in the dictionaries as, among other 
things, "virtue," but "honor," even "proper pride," come closer. Achilles 
is young, handsome, the conspicuous and admirable person, the athlete 
of grace. Agamemnon, leader of the expedition against Troy, in order to ap- 
pease an offended Apollo, is forced to take a series of steps culminating in a 
mortal offense to the honor of Achilles. Military ethics forbids Achilles to 
challenge the old leader to a duel, so Achilles simply withdraws. In his ab- 
sence his dearest friend, Patroclus, is persuaded to impersonate him in a ritual 
combat with the Trojan champion Hector, and is killed. Achilles though 
he knows from a prophecy that he will die now follows what arete in such 
a case demands of the hero. He fights Hector, kills him, drags his body in 
triumph from his chariot but dies from a wound in the heel by which his 
mother had held him when she dipped him as an infant in the waters of the 
Styx, an immersion she had intended to make him proof against wounds. 

Now the arete here brought to a tragic peak is very far from Christian 
virtue, and almost as far from modern secular, utilitarian morality. It is no 
trouble at all to outline the story of Achilles in terms, for most of us at least, 
of strong moral condemnation. The initial offense that outraged the hero was 
Agamemnon's taking away a concubine from Achilles in a kind of politico- 
religious deal with Apollo. The hero withdraws, thus endangering the cause 
of his fellows, his country, the whole expedition, out of jealous pique. He is 
roused to fight again by a purely personal matter, the death in fair combat 
of his friend Patroclus, with whom he may have had pederastic relations. He 
takes a vainglorious revenge on the vanquished Hector. He is moved through- 
out by vanity; he is about as moral and as human as a fighting cock. 

The above is, of course, unfair. Homer is setting forth in the framework 
of the customs of his time a heroic agon, a struggle in which a man who has 
become what his fellows most admired goes deliberately to what he knows 
must be his death to keep that admiration. More nobly put, Achilles sacri- 
fices his life for an ideal, an ideal that has never ceased to be part of Western 
moral life, though fortunately not often at the frenetic intensity of the Homeric 
hero's life. We are back again at arete. 

It is the virtue of the man, always measuring himself against others, who 
is determined to do better than they the things they all want to do. In Homer's 
day those things were the things young, athletic fighting men of a landed 


Origins: The Jews and the Greeks 

aristocracy wanted to do and be. But the element of agon, the ritual struggle, 
could and would be later in Western history transferred to many other kinds 
of human activity, a fact that Americans hardly need to be reminded of. The 
ideal of the Homeric hero can be put pejoratively. He is the obsessively 
competitive man, always aware of his place in an elaborate order of rank 
indeed a human peck order always trying to move himself up and push 
someone down, the jealous egalitarian who somehow manages to treat with 
appropriate differences those above and those below him, the man who must 
be a success. Perhaps only the archaic dignity of Homer's poetry and the 
excellence our educational tradition has always found in the Greeks really 
make the difference between these Homeric competitors and the vulgar big 
shots of our vulgar business world today. The ultimate prize in the Homeric 
agon, however, is not mere success, not mere leading the league, any more 
than it is in business with us. Honor, in a curious way, is its own reward. 
Achilles followed his father's most Homeric advice, aw apurrdcw icat virdpoypv 
c/jyicvat aXXov, to a martyr's death. 20 

Homer is an admirable source for the ways of the Greek fighting aristoc- 
racy of the first few centuries after these northern wanderers settled down in 
the Aegean world and appropriated for themselves, after the fashion of such 
conquerors, the benefits of the civilization they found there. It is already an 
established aristocracy, in many ways reminiscent of the early feudal aristoc- 
racy of Europe, whose bards have also left us a great epic, the Chanson de 
Roland. The arete of the Homeric hero will reappear, altered indeed, in the 
perfect gentle knight of chivalry. But Homer tells us very little about the rest 
of the Greeks, who clearly were not even in this stage, before the city-state, or 
polis, quite simply divided into warriors and serfs. For a period of a few cen- 
turies later, however, still well before the great age of Athens in the fifth 
century, we do have in the works of Hesiod, and in those attributed to him, 
information about aspects of Greek life not developed at length in the 
Homeric poems, the more practical, day-to-day wisdom of the didactic poet, 
and some reflection of the ways of the Greek farmer. Hesiod himself was no 
nobleman, but also no serf or slave. He came of what we might call yeoman 
farming stock in Boeotia, a region that later Greek literary tradition was to 
label slow-witted, boorish. He probably wrote the Works and Days, a series 
of didactic poems dealing with the life of the small farmer, though most 

20 'To be always among the bravest, and hold my head above others." Iliad, VI, 208, 
trans, by R. Lattimore, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1951; I should like 
to translate unpoetically: "Always to be best in masculine excellences and come out 
on top of the others." 


A History of Western Morals 

critics now think he did not write the Theogony the later Greeks attributed 
to him. "Hesiod," at any rate, formed with "Homer" the staple of Greek 
education right down to the end of pagan days* Hesiod clearly supplied the 
common touch lacking in Homer. 

The Theogony is the first surviving attempt to systematize what the 
Greeks had come to believe about their gods; it is a kind of canon of their 
Olympian religion. There is in this straightforward account none of the 
prettiness, the literary savoring, the playing with a mythology which is found 
in so much later Greek and Roman writing, and which is at its worst perhaps 
in the Metamorphoses of Ovid. Hesiod surely believed in the Olympian gods, 
and not self-consciously. The line between the life of the gods and that of men 
was clear, but it was not for Hesiod and surely not for most Greeks of his 
time a line between what we should call the supernatural and the natural. 
Within a century or so in Ionia we may believe that the first "philosophers" 
on our record were to begin to make this distinction, and to push the bound- 
aries of the natural toward the point where the existence of any supernatural 
is denied; Thales, the earliest name in the long history of Western philosophy, 
is said to have predicted an eclipse in 585 B.C. This, it may be noted, is one 
year after the fall of Jerusalem and the beginning of the Babylonian captivity 
of the Jewish elite. 

These early Greeks certainly did not expect a dramatic supernatural 
interference by an Olympian in the routine of their daily lives; but it seems 
unlikely that they commonly felt the distinction between the everyday pre- 
vailing of the kind of regularities the scientist discovers and the rare, direct, 
miraculous intervention of the deity in the affairs of men. Whatever else it 
was, the Olympian faith was an immanent one. Perhaps an ordinary West- 
erner today can best understand the distinction as the Greek felt it if he will 
try to think of the distinction between the rulers and the ruled in the old 
monarchic sense, where the ruled have no direct voice in choosing their rulers, 
but do know the difference between good times and bad, good rulers and 
bad, and feel, however obscurely, that some actions of theirs may somehow 
get home to their rulers and influence them. The Greek was even capable of 
cursing a god who failed to respond satisfactorily to what the petitioner felt 
was a ritually correct demand; and this must not be thought of as blasphemy. 

Yet one must not assume that these Greeks were unduly familiar with 
their gods. They would not at this early date and, save for a minority of 
rationalist intellectuals, would not at any time have understood the common 
phrase in our history textbooks that the ancient Greek gods were like men 


Origins: The Jews and the Greeks 

except that they were immortal and much more powerful. Both immortality 
and power, for one thing, would have had more absolute reality for them 
than for us. The Greek did have the feelings we still can associate with the 
word "blasphemy," if we take the trouble. More particularly, if he did not 
get what he wanted from his petition let us say frankly, prayer, for there are 
many kinds of prayer he could feel that either he had failed to carry out the 
prescribed ritual forms as they should be carried out, or that he had made not 
so much an unreasonable demand of the god as a presumptuous one, one 
that would, after all, offend the god's immortal majesty. The former was per- 
haps no more than an error, but the kind of error in carrying out a rational 
process that can still upset the scientist when he makes a similar one; the 
latter was a sin, which we shall again meet in the great days of Greece, the 
sin of hubris. 

For the rest, the works collected under the name of Hesiod, together with 
a few fragments of gnomic wisdom from various sources, do give us some 
notion of what Homer had to omit, the daily moral life of ordinary Greeks. 
They expect to work, indeed to toil. They know they should honor the gods, 
take care of their families, tell the truth, and keep their word. They do not 
look forward with anything like Egyptian awareness to reward or punishment 
in a future life; they would appear to have some sense of individual immor- 
tality of the soul, but not an operational one. They do not have any concept 
of "moral progress," or of historical progress. Indeed, in this cosmogony we 
get the first clear notion of human collective life as a decline from a Golden 
Age to an Iron Age, with no relief in sight. In short, the tone of these works 
and fragments is pessimistic, a pessimism not really far from the classic 
phrase of the Book of Job: "But man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly 
upward." 21 Again it must be insisted that from writings like these one must 
not conclude that Greek lives were spent in unrelieved unhappiness; but it 
must also be insisted that these Greeks were not the happy, smiling children 
of the Mediterranean sun, their lives clouded only by a few interesting pas- 
sions, that they seemed to some Victorians to have been. The Greek common 
people could never be sure enough of tomorrow let us be clear and color- 
less and say, could not have anything like enough economic security to be 
optimists. There is this much truth in the doctrine of dialectical materialism; 
it took the steam engine to produce Pollyanna. 

211 incline to believe that not until the eighteenth century in the West^did large 
numbers of human beings come to feel the antithesis of this, that "man is born to 
happiness, as the sparks fly upward." 


A History of Western Morals 


There is not much point in dwelling in a history of this sort on the West 
European equivalents of the archaic or heroic early periods we have been 
dealing with in this chapter; or, rather, consideration of the Germanic and 
Celtic, perhaps also the Slavonic, myths and heroes should come only under 
the nineteenth-century heading. Though Moses and David, Achilles and Odys- 
seus have never ceased to play an important part in the moral history of the 
West, Wotan, Siegfried, and the druids of eld went underground several 
thousand years ago, with the advent of Christianity, and stayed underground 
until quite recently; and it is very hard to trace them underground. In the 
sense that I discussed in the very first section of this chapter, your conduct 
and mine may well be in part "determined" by what went on among our 
Celtic, Germanic, or Slavic ancestors long, long ago, but I do not see any way 
in which the historian can establish the nature and importance of such an 
effect, if it exists. Historians, men of letters, and at least one very distinguished 
composer of operas did in the nineteenth century combine to inform the 
Germans, for instance, that they were braver and more profound than ordi- 
nary people because Siegfried had gone even Achilles several better in heroics. 
Some, indeed, went so far as to prove that Achilles himself had in fact been 
a German. We cannot leave Siegfried, nor even the druids, out of a history 
of Western morals, because they, through their legends, figure in some of the 
great modern religions of nationalism. But they do not belong here, at this 

As a matter of fact, and in spite of the often successful efforts of scholars 
to reconstitute objectively as much as possible of these cultures, we know 
the moral and religious elements of the culture of the ancient German and 
the Celtic peoples through a double refraction, that of medieval redactions 
like the Arthurian cycle and the song of the Nibelungs and that of the modern 
romantic nationalists which begins with eighteenth-century figures like James 
McPherson and Justus Moser, Each of these groups reflects more clearly the 
concerns of its own age than the nature of the past ages it was trying to bring 
back to mind. The peoples of Northern and Western Europe simply did not 
record in writing what they thought and felt until after they had come into 
contact with the Roman Empire or Christianity. The Greek and Roman 
writers of later times do give us valuable bits of information about the bar- 
barian tribes who were breaking into the empire, but the most skeptical 


Origins: The Jews and the Greeks 

toward what our modern social sciences have achieved will have to admit 
that our standards for such information are vastly higher than those even of 
an Ammianus Marcellinus, who had no ax to grind. The best known, and in 
many ways the best, of Roman accounts of the Germans is the Germania of 
Tacitus, a man with a very sharp ax indeed against his fellows of the Roman 
ruling classes of the late first century A.D. Tacitus was certainly a stern mor- 
alist, and in this little tract he is using the "primitive" and unspoiled Germans 
as a foil to the civilized and very spoiled upper-class Romans of the Flavian 
Age. But he does bring out the fact that the Germans were addicted to 
drunkenness, brawling, outbursts of temper, and knightly honor, as well as to 
preserving the chastity of their women and to maintaining the simplicity of 
honest rural life. 

It would be useful if we could be sure that certain tendencies toward 
conduct of a specific sort in peoples of Northern and Western Europe today 
could be traced back to the ways of their ancestors of the first millennium B.C. 
Take the German tendency toward disciplined obedience to orders from their 
rulers, their feeling for what they call Obrigkeit (not quite our "authority"). 
This tendency, which cannot be described with perfect exactness, would prob- 
ably be accepted as "real" by all save the hopeless nominalists who refuse 
to admit that there is anything at all that can be described as a national trait, 
a national character. Does this feeling for Obrigkeit go back to Arminius and 
beyond, or is it, rather, the product of the last few centuries of Prussian and 
Hohenzollern success? Even the assumption that the older such a tendency is 
the more firmly embedded in a people's habits it is, and, therefore, the less 
likely to change or be changed, may not be correct; but if it is, we must regret 
fhat we know so little about just such aspects of the early history of these 
peoples. Perhaps the problem of the source of a trait almost the opposite of 
this Germanic sense of Obrigkeit, the fiery unruliness and irresponsibility 
attributed to the Celts, is no longer important, since even in Ireland the fire 
seems almost extinct. Yet for the sake of Franco-American relations it would 
be good to know whether the reluctance of the French to obey our behests 
is the fault of Vercingetorix, or merely of Louis XIV and Napoleon. And of 
course it would be good to know whether the "Slavic soul" really was formed 
in the Pripet Marshes, or was invented by nineteenth-century Slavophile 
intellectuals. But unfortunately we cannot know (his, and much else of the 
sort we should like to know. We shall have to get back to (hose remarkable 
Greeks of the fifth century B.C., about whom we do know a great deal. 


Greece: The Great Age 

MODERN HISTORIANS are very aware of the problem of what, in space and 
time, constitutes a valid "unit" of history. Mr, Arnold Toynbee keeps telling 
us that it is impossible, or at least immoral., to try to write the history of so 
parochial a group as the modern nation-state. Others have so far pushed 
back in time what as schoolboys we knew as the "Renaissance," and dated 
even in Italy as beginning with the mid-fifteenth century, that Renaissance 
and Middle Ages seem to melt together. In all this critical revision, however, 
the old-fashioned concept of a Great Age of Greece, beginning in the eighth 
century B.C., culminating in the fifth, and ending neatly with the fourth and 
Alexander the Great, has stood up pretty well. The Greeks were no longer 
in this age recent invaders under tribal chieftains and a warrior aristocracy 
of landholders, as they had been in the Homeric Age. They had already 
formed the characteristic Greek society, the polis, or city-state. These small 
states were established through the Aegean, in Asia Minor, the Greek main- 
land and islands, and in the colonies scattered on coasts of the Mediterranean 
and Black seas not held by those other colonists the Phoenicians. Note that 
this city-state was not confined to what Americans know as their "city limits," 
nor even to their city and suburbs, but, territorially considered, was nearer 
to an average American county with county seat and surrounding small towns 
and farms. The Greek city-state, even Athens, which was a manufacturing 
and trading city, had its farming population. There is no great distortion 
involved if you will think of it as a small-scale equivalent especially as to 


Greece: The Great Age 

the emotional allegiances of its members of the modern Western nation- 
state. 1 

These city-states, big (relatively big, of course) , middle-sized, and small, 
formed a kind of system, an "international society" within which there were 
wars, sports (the original Olympic games and the like), diplomatic relations, 
trading, travel, immigration in varying degrees of freedom, and, again in 
varying degrees of freedom, interchange of ideas. Their wars among them- 
selves culminated in the supremacy of a marginally Greek tribal state on the 
north, Macedonia, and the spread of Greek armies and culture eastward 
under Alexander. After about 300 B.C., though Athens, Sparta, and the other 
major city-states took a while to realize it, the classic city-state gave way to a 
differently organized Mediterranean world, the world of "Greco-Roman" cul- 
ture we shall study in the next chapter. That world owed a great deal did a 
great deal as it did, thought and felt as it did because of the world of the 
Greek city-state we are about to study. So in their turn did the Greeks of the 
Great Age owe much to their ancestors of the Homeric Age. But as periods, 
ages, cultures, and suchlike devices that the historian must use to cut his 
cloth go, these are all three Homeric, Greek, Greco-Roman justifiable, 
perhaps even "real," and genetically related. 

If historians are fairly well agreed that there was a Great Age of Greece, 
they are, as might be expected in mid-twentieth century, by no means agreed 
on what the age was really like. Indeed, the history of the reputation of the 
Greeks is itself a fascinating one. Over the last 2,500 years it is safe to say 
that, to those in charge of Western formal education and to almost all mem- 
bers of the Western intellectual classes, these Greeks seemed to have set the 
highest standards men have ever set in manners, taste, and morals, in art, 
letters, and philosophy. There has been over the centuries a remarkably stable 
set of evaluative notions let us carefully not say "myth," "legend," or even 
"pattern" about the Greeks of the Great Age, which, since I cannot here 
dwell on it at book length, I shall rashly try to summarize in a sentence. The 
Greeks, more especially the Athenians of the Age of Pericles, who represent 
in the tradition the topmost peak, enjoyed and admired physical health and 
"classic" beauty, as embodied in their statues; were temperate and sensible 
individuals for whom these enjoyments never became obsessions; had a highly 

i The pattern is not, of course, perfect. Some parts of Greece itself, notably the 
northwestern sections north of the Gulf of Corinth, were even in the fifth century 
organized tribally on an earlier pattern. Where Greek colonies were planted in lands 
inhabited by alien peoples, there were always special problems of relations between 
the urban Greeks and the surrounding "natives," who probably were mostly fanners- 


A History of Western Morals 

developed sense of duty to the state but also a determined sense of individual 
rights and freedom; admired and practiced the use of what men still call 
"reason," but were not narrow rationalists, since they had a lofty, even tragic, 
awareness of man's middle state between beast and god; had a firm sense of 
right and wrong, but no nagging, puritanical worries about sin; had, in fact, 
the best of this world and the next, with no hell, no torments of the damned; 
had psyches singularly unlike the psyches charted by Sigmund Freud, good 
Greek psyches in which the unconscious, if it were there at all, was as 
serenely temperate as the conscious. The Pericles of the famous funeral ora- 
tion was in this tradition a realist: 

Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. 
We do not copy our neighbours, but are an example to them. It is true that we are 
called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of 
the few. But while the law secures equal justice to all alike in their private disputes, 
the claim of excellence is also recognised; and when a citizen is in any way distin- 
guished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as 
the reward of merit. . . . For we are lovers of the beautiful, yet simple in our 
tastes, and we cultivate the mind without loss of manliness. Wealth we employ, 
not for talk and ostentation, but when there is a real use for it. To avow poverty 
with us is no disgrace; the true disgrace is in doing nothing to avoid it. 2 

Perhaps Walter Savage Landor was a realist, too: 

Tell me not what too well I know 
About the bard of Sirmio . . . 

Yes, in Thalia's son 

Such stains there are ... as when a Grace 
Sprinkles another's laughing face 

With nectar, and runs on. 3 

This view of the happy Greeks of the Great Age and their cultivated 
Roman imitators has twice been severely attacked. First, to the Fathers of 
the Christian church the Greeks were pagan idolaters, and what the world 
most admired in them was to the Christian simply sinful. We shall see in a 
later chapter how far early Christianity did in fact set up ideals the polar 
opposite of the beautiful-and-good. At any rate, with the reception of Aris- 
totle in the medieval West through the Arabs, some part, at least, of the 
culture of the Greeks returned to high honor. With the Renaissance in Italy 

2 Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans, by B. Jowett, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 
1881, Book H, 37-40, Vol. I, pp. 117-119. 

3 "On Catullus," in Poetical Works, ed. by Stephen Wheeler, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 
1937, Vol. H, p. 413. 


Greece: The Great Age 

the whole Greek model was raised to the highest point it has ever attained as 
a model. Only with the French "Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns" 
and the British "Battle of the Books" in Western Europe -at the end of the 
seventeenth century did a group of intellectuals, in spirit on the whole on the 
defensive, dare suggest that "classic" cultural achievements might be equaled 
or even in some fields surpassed by contemporaries. The modernists did not 
really turn to the attack until the nineteenth century, when the more ardent 
devotees of science and technology, the more confident heirs of the Enlighten- 
ment, began to suggest that things Greek had been rather petty the English- 
man Richard Cobden said they were "Lilliputian" and that it was really 
shocking that young men all over the West should spend the best years of 
their lives in formal education, learning the dead languages and the dead 
cultures of the Greeks and Romans. Herbert Spencer put it neatly: 

Men who would blush if caught saying Iphigenia instead of Iphigenia, or would 
resent as an insult any imputation of ignorance respecting the fabled labours of a 
fabled demi-god, show not the slightest shame in confessing that they do not know 
where the Eustachian tubes are, what are the actions of the spinal cord, what is 
the normal rate of pulsation, or how the lungs are inflated. 4 

What we may call the utilitarian attack has not yet been as successful as 
was the first wave of Christian attack; but then, Western higher education 
has not, in spite of the gloomy predictions of the humanists, broken down as 
did Greco-Roman pagan education after the fourth century A.D. The Greeks, 
even if only in translation, are still in high honor among us. They are and 
this is surely characteristic of our multanimous age, as yet very far from mass 
uniformity very variously interpreted. There are the individual crotchety 
interpretations. Samuel Butler, the Victorian rebel against a Victorian father, 
wrote a book to prove that the Odyssey was written by a woman. To 
Nietzsche, Socrates was almost as guilty as St. Paul in bringing about the 
perversion of the Greek warrior ideal. More seriously, modern anthropo- 
logical studies have focused interest on sides of Greek life in the Great Age, 
such as the cults of Demeter and of Dionysus, in which the initiates behaved 
more like Holy Rollers than like sober devotees of sweetness and light. Social 
and economic historians have called attention to the always precarious mate- 
rial basis of Greek culture, political historians to the disastrous struggles 
among the city-states by which they destroyed the very independence each 

4 Herbert Spencer, Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical, New York, Appleton, 
1890, p. 43. 


A History of Western Morals 

one cherished so greatly. 5 The late Gilbert Murray, one of the most distin- 
guished of classical scholars, even suggested a major heresy in interpretation: 
the Greeks of the Great Age were perhaps not even classicists in the sense of 
being poised, gentlemanly, reasonable followers of the Golden Mean, but 
were at bottom romanticists, rebels, undisciplined yearners and mystics who 
very much needed to praise, and even to set up ethical and artistic standards 
of self-restraint, just because they were such wild men at heart. Traces of 
these romanticists still remain, as in much of the work of Euripides, but, 
Murray suggested, generations of schoolteachers and conventional moralists 
have probably worked to mold the heritage of the Great Age in accordance 
with their schoolmasterish "classic" tastes, a task made possible by the scarcity 
of manuscripts in days before printing. 

The classical view of the classic Greeks, however, still persists. One of the 
most esteemed of American commentators on the Greeks, Miss Edith Hamil- 
ton, whose The Greek Way has had wide distribution in paperback form, still 
sees them as the Renaissance saw them, as quite simply the best yet, as 
Apollos incarnate and in something like the Christian sense of an incarna- 
tion. So strong still is the acceptance of the Athenians of the fifth century and 
of all Greeks of the time as incarnations of the humanist's virtues, that the 
historian is strongly tempted into revision, if not into actual debunking. It is 
certainly a temptation I shall rather note here than wholly resist. 6 


The ideal of the beautiful-and-good, the /caAoK<rya0ta, as it stands out from the 
very considerable body of art, literature, and philosophy that has survived is 
attractive, one must say, to most Westerners not predisposed by other devo- 
tions or perhaps by some inner resistance to the human lot to find it re- 
pelling. The Athenian gentleman who strove to attain this ideal was a member 
of an aristocracy new in the West. With undue but useful simplification, we 
may say that throughout Western history and, one suspects, Western pre- 
history, at least from the Neolithic times two groups of gifted, specially 
trained, and privileged human beings have stood out from the masses. We 

5 On this whole topic, nothing more is necessary for the general reader than the ad- 
mirable The Greeks and the Irrational by E. R. Dodds, Berkeley, University of Cali- 
fornia Press, 1951, now available in a paperback edition, Boston, Beacon, 1957. 
sin strictness, I suppose one should be careful not to use "Athenian" and "Greek" 
interchangeably; but it is difficult to avoid some such usage. At any rate, the great 
tradition does take Athens as typical, Sparta as atypical. This usage is not without 


Greece: The Great Age 

may call these, with Spengler, the warriors and the priests, and symbolize 
them by heart and head, or sword and pen. The neat dualism of course breaks 
down in concrete application: individuals display various admixtures of both, 
and additions of something that is neither, and this is true whether we classify 
them in terms of the roles they play or of their temperaments, their person- 
alities. Above all, for our present purpose, ruling or upper classes themselves 
are often mixed, a class of warrior-priests, a monarchy headed by a priest- 
king. Yet often, if only roughly, the division holds, and the relation between 
the warrior class and the priestly class and the prestige of each in the eyes of 
the other and of the common people are extremely useful facts for the his- 
torian of ideas and of morals. 

Now the point about the Athenian aristocratic ideal is this: the beautiful- 
and-good man is both a warrior and a priest or, if the last word throws you 
off a bit, let me use a current, shop-worn, but not, I hope, too misleading 
word, an "intellectual." It is, however, in many ways a most unsatisfactory 
word, for it can start a powerful flow from the adrenal glands. Americans 
often think of "intellectual" as meaning "intelligent," and not "one who 
preaches, teaches, writes, acts on the stage, paints, designs, or who is chiefly 
concerned with appreciating the results of such activities." Physicians, who 
are in our United States rarely intellectuals in this sense (though they may 
have an intellectual's hobbies), are usually very intelligent, very well-edu- 
cated, and aware of so being. When they read about intellectuals in my sense 
of the word, they know they are not intellectuals, and they think they are 
being excluded from the class of the intelligent. This makes them angry. 7 

At first sight it may well seem that these two, warrior and intellectual, are 
in happy and useful balance in Athens, each respecting and influencing the 
other, the warrior refined but not softened in the intellectual, the intellectual 
toughened but not stultified in the warrior. So, at least, the ideal has appeared 
in the great tradition. And the record of the lives of these gentlemen is there 
to show the ideal was not wholly unrealized. The warrior is no vain, boastful 

7 See S. M. Lipset's 'The Egghead Looks at Himself," New York Times, October 17, 
1957, Section VI, and especially a "letter to the editor" signed "Robert Zufall, M.D." 
a fortnight later, December 1, Section VI, p. 31. The letter is worth quoting as a 
documentary: "I am moved to comment on Professor Lipset's article. It upsets me 
greatly to see any group of people call themselves The Intellectuals,' as if they had 
some sort of monopoly on brains. Webster defines 'intellectual' as 'much above the 
average in intelligence.' The Professor defines it as anyone who depends for his liveli- 
hood on 'culture,' including, obviously, a lot of people who aren't even intelligent at 
all. It strikes me that this assorted group of singers, dancers and ivory-tower types 
would get a bit more respect from the rest of us if they stopped calling themselves, so 
ridiculously, 'the smart ones.* " 


A History of Western Morals 

Homeric fighting chieftain; he is Xenophon, recording not only the successful 
fight against great odds of the Anabasis, but the conversations of Socrates and 
the admirably balanced education, or paideia, of young Cyrus. Or if, as it 
must be admitted the Achilles of Homer seems to have, the hero must have 
his interesting complexities, these complexities are now, as in the charming 
Alcibiades, ambivalences worthy of the modern novel. So, too, starting from 
the side tradition lists as primarily that of the intellectual, we know that 
Socrates himself was an Athenian soldier, that Aeschylus was proud of his 
part in the Persian Wars. 

Was he prouder of this, perhaps, than of his work as dramatist? Com- 
mentators have often noted that in the famous epitaph in the Palantine An- 
thology there is no mention of the plays: 

Aeschylus son of Euphorion the Athenian this monument hides, who died in 
wheat-bearing Gela; but of his approved valour the Marathonian grove may tell, 
and the deep-haired Mede who knew it. 8 

It will not do, however, to question the genuineness of the admiration which 
the Athenian gentleman of the Great Age felt for the work of the mind. If, in 
a culture that so prized bodily strength and beauty, a culture still held so 
much in thrall by the spell of Homer, one feels that the warrior primes the 
priest-intellectual, it is still true that the balance between the two was remark- 
ably even. What a closer examination does reveal is not so much a failure of 
balance Athenians could in the Great Age hardly have understood the situ- 
ation aptly put by Bernard Shaw for his England as the contrast between 
Horseback Hall and Heartbreak Hall or have sympathized with Kipling's 
very mixed feelings toward his "flanneled oafs and muddied fools" but, 
rather, that the agonistic warrior ideal we saw as one of the keys to the moral 
ideal of the Homeric Age took almost complete possession of the intellectuals 
of the Age of Pericles. 

We confront another useful but dangerous dualism, that between competi- 
tiveness and co-operativeness in human nature and human society. 9 Certainly 
a complete opposition, the warrior and the warrior class always for competi- 
tion, the priest and the priestly class always for co-operation, warriors always 

8 Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology, trans, by J. W. Mackail, London, Long- 
mans, 1938, p. 48. 

9 The subject is of major importance for the historian of Western morals, and I shall 
return to it. The reader who wants a clear, forceful and exaggerated statement of 
the contrast should read P. A. Kropotkin, Mutual Aid, a Factor of Evolution, New 
York, McClure, Phillips, 1902. 


Greece: The Great Age 

pouring oil, priests always pouring water, on the fires of human aggressive- 
ness such an opposition is very misleading indeed. Even for Christianity, the 
observation dear to hostile rationalist critics is true enough: no rivalries more 
bitter than those inspired by hatred theological Yet it is certainly true that 
the Christian ideal, as we shall see in Chapter VI, if not by any means pacifist 
(it does have pacifist elements), nonetheless exalts brotherly love, self-abne- 
gation co-operation, in short and severely condemns just those physically 
agonistic elements of human life the Greeks of the Great Age so admired. 

Their admiration was no merely theoretical one, but was translated into 
almost every sphere of the good, the dignified, the aristocratic life. The Greeks 
not only competed in the Olympic and other athletic contests, but they com- 
peted in all the arts and letters, and not merely in the possibly ambiguous 
competition of the market place and the coteries, from which the wounded 
author of our day can always well, almost always salvage some kind of 
succes d'estime. The Greek creative artist engaged in a firmly ranked compe- 
tition from which he emerged as clearly placed and as widely known as a 
major-league batter in the United States. The dramatists of Athens entered 
their plays, which, if accepted, were staged and performed at public expense, 
in a competition and came out ranked first, second, third, and also-ran. 
Sculptors, painters, architects all submitted to this sort of athlete's competi- 
tion. Politicians, it need hardly be said, had to win votes, though the complex 
machinery of Athenian political institutions did not make for such clear 
numerical ranking as we Americans are used to in our elections. Pericles him- 
self was a boss rather than a direct people's choice. But the agonistic element 
in Greek politics and war hardly needs emphasis. 

This everlasting competition, as yet not softened by humanitarian and 
egalitarian sentiments, was far more ferocious than it appears to most modern 
lovers of ancient Greece to have been. It was at its most intense in the con- 
stant wars that culminated in the great Peloponnesian War at the end of the 
fifth century. Actual fighting among human beings is clearly never a gentle 
pursuit, but there is, nevertheless, a remarkable range between the extremes 
of stylized and not very murderous fighting, as in the knightly combats of the 
later Middle Ages, and all-out fighting like that of our own wars and those of 
the Greeks of the Great Age. It does not become us, whose culture has pro- 
duced Auschwitz, Katyn, and Hiroshima, to reproach the Greeks of the Great 
Age with Melos and Corcyra. But read and no one concerned at all with 
public affairs today should fail to read the pages of Thucydides in which he 
describes what went on at Melos and Corcyra. Here, certainly, that ambigu- 


A History of Western Morals 

ous and perhaps meaningless commonplace that a sufficiently great difference 
in degree can be a difference in kind does not hold. In numbers of victims, our 
outrages exceed those of the Greeks a thousand to one; morally they are 

Quite outside war and politics, one gets the impression that competition 
in Greek life, save perhaps in "business," was at least as extensive as in ours, 
and somewhat more extreme. The old Homeric theme, which can be trans- 
lated into good American as "winner take all," still prevailed. One aimed 
always for the very top; only the championship counted. There were no sec- 
onds or thirds in the Olympic games and no team scores. It is, incidentally, 
enlightening to note that when the games were revived in a very different 
world in 1896, the planners, quite aware of Greek history, refused to admit 
team scores by points; the press, and especially the American press, pro- 
ceeded to work out "unofficial" team scores which counted placing down 
through fifth. 

Moreover, though there were certainly rules for all these competitions, 
intellectual and athletic, in ancient Greece, though as in all aristocracies the 
concept of honor was a very real one, there are indications in the literature 
that the kind of unscrupulousness certainly not condemned by Homer in his 
wily Odysseus persisted into the Great Age. We are dealing with intangibles; 
but it looks as if the standards of "fair play" both in ethics and in conduct 
of these Greek aristocrats fell rather below that of later aristocracies at their 
best. Aristophanes, Thucydides, and Plato together cover a lot of ground. 
They share little, perhaps, but a common feeling (hat their Athens is going 
wrong morally wrong. The first two in particular are good observers as well 
as good moralists. From them all there emerges the sense of a society in 
which the desire to win, to excel, to shine, to rise, is breaking down the con- 
ventional restraints of morality, the rules of the game. 10 

The Greeks of the Great Age were then engaged in an agon that often 
looks like a mad scramble. But their ideal of the beautiful-and-good was by 
no means without influence on the goals, at least, of the competitors. The 
Greek aristocrat of the Age of Pericles would not have cared to succeed as 
Rockefeller succeeded, nor as St. Francis succeeded, nor as St. Simeon Stylites 

10 These are war and postwar writers, and I should grant that they and their society 
reflect the deep wounds such wars make, especially on intellectuals. But I do not 
think one can find a more golden and moral age in the years immediately preceding 
431, not even among the men who fought at Marathon. Themistocles turned traitor; 
Demaratus, king of Sparta, took refuge with the Persian enemy. Alcibiades was not 
the first. 


Greece: The Great Age 

succeeded. All three of these men would have seemed to the Greek to have 
pursued unworthy ends money, mystic poverty, self-castigating austerity; 
indeed, the latter two would have been, probably, quite incomprehensible 
pursuits to a Xenophon. But here Rockefeller gives us a better start. The 
Greek of the Great Age did not disdain wealth; it was for him an indispen- 
sable moral good. The poor man could not, in this ethics, be a good man. 
The pursuit of wealth, though, was beneath this aristocrat, as we shall soon 
see. He would have counted Rockefeller out of the moral community of the 
beautiful-and-good merely because he was a businessman. But he would also 
have thought that Rockefeller like the Croesus of his own legends had 
simply too much money, indecently too much, even had it been inherited. 

|5Ve are at perhaps the most familiar part of Greek ethics, the concept of 
the Golden Mean, of nothing in excess. Aristotle has in the Nicomachean 
Ethics given it classic expression. Courage is a virtue, for the beautiful-and- 
good one of the very highest virtues. Cowardice, which is insufficiency of 
courage, is a vice; but so, too, is foolhardiness, rashness, the caricatural 
"courage" of the show-off, which is the excess of courage. This kind of anal- 
ysis can be applied to a great range of human conduct. Prudent care of one's 
money, good stewardship, is a virtue; the spendthrift is a bad man, but so, too, 
is the miser^ 

We may here note that there has been a good deal of hostile criticism of 
this ideal of the Golden Mean, criticism no doubt basically directed at the 
implications for conduct of the ideal, but framed as criticism of the logical 
implications of its wording in specific cases. Does a term like "excess" of 
courage make sense? Has foolhardiness any relation to courage? Or, to take 
a modem instance, the rationalist J. M. Robertson writes that a pickpocket 
could "claim to observe the mean between robbery with violence and the 
spiritless honesty which never steals at all, and to be thus, on Aristotelian 
principles, a virtuous man in that respect." 11 The phrase "in that respect," 
which the reader does not notice and is not supposed to notice, no doubt 
saves Robertson's logic in this particular piece of casuistry, a somewhat sus- 
pect but often useful way of thinking about moral problems. To Aristotle, of 
course, the instance would have been pointless; pickpockets are just not 
allowed to compete for the prize of the beautiful-and-good. 

The real objections to the ideal of the Golden Mean are more deeply 
rooted in human attitudes toward this world and the next than casuistry, at 

11 John Mackinnon Robertson, A Short History of Morals, London, Watts, 1920, p. 


A History of Western Morals 

least on the surface, usually reveals. The ideal of these Greek gentlemen 
seems to most of those who dislike it to be commonplace, pedestrian, dull, 
unheroic. It seems to seek compromise where the truly good man ought to 
fight to the death. It is earth-bound, wingless. We are here at our first clear 
confrontation with another of the inevitable dualisms we shall have to deal 
with throughout this history, one we know best as the contrast of the romantic 
with the classical, a contrast that has as much meaning for the historian of 
morals as for the historian of art and letters, a contrast we can by no means 
summarize here. An old pair of symbols will have to do: the romantic is the 
soaring Gothic cathedral; the classical, the confined Greek temple, clinging 
to the ground. 12 

Now it is the romantic to whom the ideal of the Golden Mean is unac- 
ceptable. To the classicist, it has been, ever since it was first so clearly stated 
by the Greeks, one of the foundations of his view of life. And the views are 
certainly different Where the romanticist sees in the Golden Mean an ignoble 
contentedness with the easy, the ordinary, the average, the classicist sees in it 
a difficult striving, quite as heroic as any ascent to heaven or descent to 
hell, to attain on earth something by no means there for all to snatch; above 
all, no average, no compromise, such as mere common sense takes those terms 
to mean, but a standard, an ideal; no product of statistics, but, rather, of the 
very human drive to transcendence the romanticist likes to claim as his sole 
property. There is nothing ordinary or average, the classicist will insist, about 
the Venus de Milo, nor Pericles, nor the Parthenon. He is likely to go further, 
and maintain that basically the ideal of the beautiful-and-good is for the 
moralist not unlike what the ideal of health is for the physician, only more 
difficult to attain, and rarer. We must return to this theme when we come to 

Still another set of attributes needs to be added to this Greek ideal of the 
Golden Mean, attributes that have a moral as well as a more obvious aesthetic 
character/The Greek admired restraint, spareness, simplicityTjHere, too, the 
"classical" canon, as it has developed, no doubt distorts and exaggerates. 
Those calm, now weathered Greek statues were once gilded, painted in bright 
colors. Greek joy was often unrestrained. Greeks of the Great Age employed 

12 Spengler's antithesis of Faustian (romantic) and Apollonian (classical) remains one 
of the fullest and most interesting developments of this theme. See the Decline of the 
West, Vol. I, pp. 183 if. I suppose to the old-fashioned nominalist, who often dis- 
guises himself today as a scientist especially a social or behavioral scientist all this, 
and the very concepts "romantic" and "classical," is nonsense. But it is singularly use- 
ful nonsense, indeed indispensable nonsense, for the student of human affairs. 


Greece: The Great Age 

hyperbole witness Aristophanes as well as litotes; both words and things 
are Greek. Yet surely no one would use the word "lush" of fifth-century 
Greece; indeed, the connotations of "lush" are overwhelmingly romantic, 
Faustian. Morally, there is more than a trace of the Stoic in Greece even 
before Zeno taught on the Stoa. 

The ideals of the agon and the Golden Mean are very specifically ideals 
meant in their Athenian fifth-century origin to be valid only for an aristocratic 
minority. Work, undignified, necessary work, as the world knows it, makes 
the good life impossible. 13 The smith has to develop his muscles to a point 
well beyond Apollonian symmetry; the bookkeeper bending over his accounts 
starves both his body and his soul. Workers of any sort are bound to be 
specialized professionals; and the beautiful-and-good was as firmly an ideal 
of the amateur, the all-around man, as was the ideal of the modern British 
upper classes, who used to be, of course, brought up on a nice version of 
Greek culture. For the activities that disqualify for the attainment of true 
virtue, the Greeks had a word which sometimes attains unabridged English 
dictionaries in the form "banausic," though we do not have much use for it. 
Banausic are most of the activities which engage us all today, for few of us 
can even try to live up to the letter of the Greek ideal of the beautiful-and- 
good. 14 Many modern commentators on the ancient Greeks have seemed to 
feel a need to apologize for the very concept "banausic." Yet the ideal lives 
on, as it did in Athens itself, in a society committed to democratic egali- 

The ideal of the beautiful-and-good man is not as selfish as it must seem 
from the foregoing, not as individualistic as we today usually take the term 
to imply that is, in something like the frame of reference of Spencer's The 
Man versus the State. There is no need here to take back the remarks I have 
made above concerning the extreme competitiveness of Greek life among 
these gentlemen. But, to qualify a bit, it was a competitiveness that had as a 
balancing force, even in Athens, the soldier's acceptance of discipline, the 
citizen's acceptance of law and custom, the believer's acceptance of the pieties 
of religion, even a touch of the old patriarch's sense of responsibility for the 

13 The familiar brief statement is: "No man can practice virtue who is living the life 
of a mechanic or laborer." Aristotle, Politics, Book HI, Chap. 5. The word translated 
''virtue" is, of course, the untranslatable arete. It is sometimes translated as "ex- 
cellence " 

14 It is interesting to consider how many of our stereotypes would have made no sense 
to the Greeks of the Great Age. What would Socrates have thought of Edison's 
"Genius is one per-cent inspiration and ninety-nine per-cent perspiration"? 


A History of Western Morals 

family. Another commonplace of the manuals is here essential: the Greeks, 
even again the Athenian, were, in the oft-cited phrase of Aristotle, political 
animals, men made to live in a polis; and the man who showed some signs of 
setting himself up as a rugged individualist to the neglect of the conventional 
duties of the citizen was known by a word which has become our word 
"idiot." Again, a needed complementary consideration, the strong element of 
the Homeric hero and his drive to compete, and win, which survives in the 
fifth century, a really frenetic competitiveness, was limited to activities, shall 
we say, not banausic to art, letters, sports, to the life of the country gentle- 
man. Unbridled competitiveness in matters of business was never what it was 
to be in the nineteenth-century West a truly important matter. It is perhaps 
unfortunate that war and politics were not also thought banausic in Athens; 
here the spirit of the agon quite gainsaid, with disastrous results, the ideal of 
the Golden Mean. 

Though much of the ideal of the Great Age was real, and realized, the 
gaps between real and ideal began opening widely with the Peloponnesian 
War. The shades again are subtle. But what with Pericles sounds as lofty as 
the Gettysburg Address begins with the later Isocrates to sound faintly like 
George Babbitt, to have a touch of that vulgar "pooled self-esteem" that the 
sensitive detect in modern patriotic loyalties. Pericles, as reported by Thu- 
cydides, is certainly proud of Athens, "an education to Greece"; but his tone 
is not that of Isocrates, who boasts, "Our city was not only so beloved of the 
Gods but so devoted to mankind . . . that she shared with all men what she 
had received." There follows the Rotarian touch, "service of mankind." 15 
Pericles at least spoke before Mytilene, before Melos, before Syracuse; 
Isocrates spoke after Athenians had given in these places somewhat paradox- 
ical evidence of their devotion to the "service of mankind." 

Perhaps the gap between ideal and real in Athens had never been a small 
one, even in the best days of Pericles. Yet it was certainly smaller than it 
became in the days of Cleon, or the Thirty Tyrants, or the restored democ- 
racy of the fourth century. There is the possibility, hopeful or discouraging 
as you may feel it, that the failure of Athens was at bottom the failure of a 
democracy to live up to an aristocratic set of goals, choosing a Cleon rather 
than a Pericles or an Aristides, perhaps even choosing a Cleon in the belief 
that it was choosing a man like these. This is an oversimplification, no doubt, 

15 Isocrates, Panegyricus, 28, trans, by George Norlin, London, Heinemann, Loeb 
Classical Library, 1928, Vol. I, p. 135. 


Greece: The Great Age 

like the parallel notion that Christianity, which also sets most aristocrat! 
standards, has kept alive only by not trying to apply those standards to th 
conduct of the many. 

Yet we need not add to the long list of those who, from Plato on, hav 
blamed the ills of Athens on the spread of egalitarian and democratic ways 
Sparta, where these ways never were followed, failed as miserably and a 
quickly as did Athens in the dog-eat-dog military competition among th 
Greek city-states. Sparta, too, has left her mark on the moral history of th 
West. Among the ancients, the Spartan tone and the Spartan achievemen 
were admired perhaps more than were the Athenian. It was the Italian Renais 
sance that set Athens up so firmly as the symbol for the Greek achievemenl 
Florence, even the Florence of Savonarola's brief triumph, could never hav 
felt an affinity for Sparta. 

We know about Sparta chiefly through the writings of Athenian contem 
poraries of the Great Age, men like Plato, Thucydides, and Xenophon, whi 
were shocked by what seemed to them the democratic indiscipline of Athen 
and sought in Spartan virtues a cure for Athenian laxity, and through late 
writers like Plutarch, whose sources were hardly better than ours. Yet th 
main facts about Sparta are clear enough. The inland plain of Lacedaemoni 
was settled by one of the last bands of Dorian invaders, who subjects 
earlier inhabitants to an inferior but not fully servile status. Sparta seems a 
first to have gone the normal way of Greek city-states, fighting with he 
neighbors, but also nourishing a vigorous artistic and intellectual life. Thei 
there came, within a generation or so, what looks in the Spartan society lib 
a kind of transformation we know well enough in the personality of the ran 
individual the sudden turn that made Francesco Bernardone into St. Franci 
of Assisi, for instance but that we do not expect in a whole society evei 
from what we call a "revolution." Sometime in the seventh century B.C. 
Sparta all Spartans gave up poetry and music, save as aids to militar 
ardor, gave up talking always a Greek delight gave up even the privat 
and normal forms of family life to become an aristocratic communist city 
state and society. 

The Greek ideal of the beautiful-and-good gets twisted almost, but no 
quite, out of recognition in the great barracks that Sparta became. The idea 
of bodily health and strength is focused on the toughness of the soldier, on 
superhuman endurance of hardship and pain. The agon is there, but amon 
the Spartiates it is narrowed to a competition in military prowess, and, eva 
more than in the rest of Greece, channeled, controlled, into a collectiv 


A History of Western Morals 

effort to keep Sparta first among the Greek city-states. The old Odyssean 
note of admiration for successful cunning and deceit is there, it, too, oddly 
contorted in this barracks air. Perhaps the best-known tale from Sparta is the 
one made familiar by Plutarch of the Spartan lad, trained to thieve but with 
the proviso he must never get caught in theft, who stoically, Spartanly, en- 
dured a stolen fox gnawing at his vitals under the folds of his cloak rather 
than admit his guilt. The restraint is there, now made austerity, if not insanity; 
the Spartan would not even permit himself the luxury of speech. He spoke 

The Golden Mean has quite vanished. The Spartan had no use for the 
middle of the road, for compromise; for him the Greek folk wisdom of 
"nothing in excess" did not hold. He could not have too much discipline, 
could not be too literal-minded in obeying commands, could not remain too 
much aloof from the undignified business of managing his estate, could not 
banish art and letters too completely from his life. No major society in the 
West, perhaps, ever tried so thoroughly to transcend the limitations of Homo 
sapiens as did the Spartan. It was an extraordinary attempt, and it succeeded 
for a few generations. We cannot here attempt to trace the decline of Sparta 
and the failure of the attempt to perpetuate so inhuman a way of life. But a 
few of the contributing factors must especially interest us. For one thing, it is 
clear that Spartan contempt for the intellectual life coupled with their devo- 
tion to tradition, to doing what always had been done, made it difficult for 
them to solve problems involving new factors. Even in their specialty, war, 
they could not change fast enough to cope with the Theban innovation of the 
phalanx, and went down in defeat. The Spartan Thermopylae surely deserves 
its place in a noble tradition that has helped men to find a courage they never 
cease to need. And yet, was it that much better than the charge of the Light 
Brigade, on which we now surely accept French Marshal Bosquet's verdict; 
C'est magnifique, mats ce n'est pas la guerre? True, Tennyson now sounds 
empty, silly. 

Theirs not to make reply, 
Theirs not to reason why, 
Theirs but to do and die, 
Into the valley of Death 
Rode the six hundred. 

And Simonides has still the perfect word: 


Greece: The Great Age 
O passer-by, tell the Lacedaemonians that we lie here obeying their orders. 16 

The Greek spell is hard to break, hard, above all, for the chaste realist to 
break, who has no trouble with the Loreleis and the belles dames sans merci 
of mere romance. 

Again, the fine Spartan soldierly contempt for economic matters, and the 
curious communistic life the adult males spent in barracks and on campaigns, 
meant that their wives and stewards got control of property, with results 
disastrous to the necessary economic basis of equality among the Spartiates. 
Finally, the Spartiates in the fourth century simply began to die out, to fail to 
propagate, a result probably linked with their long absences from home on 
campaigns, and the exaggerated military communism which actually made it 
hard for them to sleep at all with their wives. But most narrow aristocracies 
tend not to perpetuate themselves by natural births, and have to recruit new 
members one way or another. Spartan excessive exclusiveness made this way 
impossible; one had to be born a Spartiate, and fewer and fewer were born 

The historian of morals must ask the obvious question: How did Sparta 
happen to develop so unusual, so "unnatural," a society? The occasion is clear 
enough. In a first war at the end of the eighth century, Sparta conquered 
neighboring Messenia, but instead of merely exacting a tribute and a few 
border settlements in the Greek, as in the later Western world, there were 
international decencies she proceeded to outrage these decencies and annex 
Messenia and make Helots, or serfs, of the Messenians. Almost a century 
later, a ferocious revolt of the Messenians, crushed with difficulty, seems to 
have alarmed the rulers of Sparta, who then put through an extraordinary set 
of reforms which made the Spartiates the military communists we meet at 
Thermopylae and many another field. But surely Messenia was but the pull 
on the trigger. The gun was loaded. The real problem is why the Spartans 
responded as they did to a problem other peoples had solved quite differently, 
by assimilating the conquered, by compromises of all sorts, even by retreat 
from a difficult position, the favored solution among the wicked imperialist 
powers of today. The answer can never be certain, but it looks as if there 
were perhaps a certain analogy with the experience of the Jews. The Dorian 
band or bands that settled in Laconia may well have been especially hardened 

16 Tennyson, 'The Charge of the Light Brigade," in Works, Boston, Houghton Mif- 
flin, 1898, p. 226; Simonides, "On the Spartans at Thermopylae," in Select Epigrams 
from the Greek Anthology, trans, by J. W. Mackail, 3d ed. rev., New York, Long- 
mans, 1911, Section m, No. 4. 


A History of Western Morals 

by their wanderings. In their early years in Laconia even their art bore a 
stamp of warlike energy of stubborn weight. Tyrtaeus, while Spartans were 
still poets, could write so symbolically Spartan a line as 

So let each man bite his lip with his teeth and abide firm-set astride the ground. 17 

In the critical years of decision, a man or group of close-knit leaders almost 
certainly swung the balance. Lycurgus, to whom legend attributed the great 
reform, may be in strict historical rigor as shadowy, if not as mythical, a 
figure as Moses. But some one or some few surely did and in a crisis what 
Lycurgus is supposed to have done. 


The beautiful-and-good, then, even in its Spartan caricature or perversion, is 
the moral ideal, the concept of the admirable and enviable person the Greeks 
of the Great Age of the polis cherished. Presented and preserved in an art and 
literature that has survived the praise of its many admirers, it is still a living 
ideal in the West. We must, however, try further to probe what kind of moral 
lives these ancient Greek admirers of the Golden Mean really led. As almost 
always until very recent times, we can tell very little of how the masses lived. 
Certainly for Athens of the fifth century it seems pretty clear that this culture, 
moral as well as intellectual, spread downward to most of the actual urbanized 
population. Sources like the pamphleteer known as the Old Oligarch, who 
complains that the very slaves in Athens do not respect their superiors, Aris- 
tophanes, above all, give us a glimpse the first in Western history of a 
lively, slick, "sophisticated" city people, quick to imitate and, if you like, 
vulgarize the tastes and ways of their betters. We get again a glimpse of the 
fact that the sober country folk, only a few miles away in Attica, thought the 
city dwellers morally loose and untrustworthy. This remains a pattern even in 
contemporary America, where technological advances have almost eliminated 
material differences between city and country. Like most such patterns, it has 
elements of truth; the Athenian, like the later Parisian and the Cockney, was 
no slow, steady, wordless follower of established routine. But one element in 
the pattern, the belief that these bright talkative city people lacked stamina, 
endurance, manliness, was probably as untrue then as aerial bombardment 
proved it to be of great Western metropolitan centers in our day. The 
Athenians did not lose their great war through any failure of nerve among 

if Elegy and Iambus, trans, by J. M Edmonds, London, Heinemann, 1931, Loeb 
Classical Library, p. 71. 


Greece: The Great Age 

the common people, nor through a lack of public spirit among them. Here 
Arnold Toynbee seems to be right: their betters led them into a series of 
only outwardly successful conquests which did violence to the habits and 
ideals of the polls. 

Two things need to be kept in mind in any attempt to judge the moral 
level of Greek life in the Great Age. First, the Greeks were very few genera- 
tions removed from a relatively primitive tribal society. The notion embodied 
in what used to be called the "miracle of Greece" has been abandoned. Study 
of the Aegean civilization centering on Crete, which had been highly devel- 
oped before the Greek bands came down on it, has made it clear that the 
Greeks did not create their mature civilization out of nothing, and in a few 
hundred years. Still, however much they may have taken over from their 
predecessors, the fact remains that their poleis were new institutions. If old 
tribal habits do survive, if there is such a thing as cultural lag, we should 
expect the Greeks to show signs of them. Second, the Greeks were always 
poor. Their land was mountainous and rocky, their soil thin. The wealthiest of 
the poleis Athens, Corinth, the cities of Ionia depended on commerce and 
production of pottery and similar work of craftsmanship. The rich by no 
means attained the kind of luxury that was to be made possible later in the 
Greco-Roman world; the poor were poor indeed, and numerous. 

With this background, it is not surprising that this Greek world should be 
a world of violence, a world in which death, disease, human suffering of all 
kinds were accepted in something like the way we accept the weather. Care is 
necessary here: I do not mean that the Greeks took suffering callously; nor 
do I mean to imply that our own is a culture that is without violence. Our 
recent wars have killed on a hitherto unequaled scale; our technological prog- 
ress, and especially the internal-combustion engine, has meant that what we 
call accidents are relatively far more frequent than they were in the ancient 
world. But we rebel against such suffering, and try, however unsuccessfully, 
to do something about it; the Greeks of the Great Age, though they felt deeply 
the extent of human misery, seem not to have believed that the group, society, 
"reforms," could do much to lessen it. Plato, who was in almost all the modern 
connotations of the word an idealist, accepted in his Utopia, the Republic, war 
as a normal function of the perfect state. In all the literature that has come 
down to us from the Great Age, you will find it hard to note anything you 
could classify as an expression of what we should call desire for humanitarian 
reform. There is, indeed, pity, compassion, eloquently expressed, though 
mostly in the tragedies, which do not deal with the lives of ordinary people. 


A History of Western Morals 

In Euripides, this pity seems at times to direct itself to the oppressed, th 
underdog, but even in Euripides there is really no trace of what we might ca 
a "social gospel." We shall return to this theme with the Middle Ages. 

Acceptance of violence and insecurity in ordinary daily life is the norm* 
human lot until almost our own day. But later Greek ethical systems, and th 
Christian ethic, did at least introduce a concern for victims of violence 
injustice, and misfortune, which really is hard to find in the Great Age. Sparta 
exposure of infants who did not measure up to the high physical standards se 
for males and females, too, for the Spartans were among the earliest euger 
icists is hardly surprising in that abnormal society. But infants in the res 
of Greece, exposed to poverty and overpopulation, were very commonl 
exposed. As a good British reformer of our own day puts it, "Socrates (son c 
a mid-wife) is made in Plato's Theaetetus to speak of putting away the ne> 
born infants as he might of the drowning of kittens." 18 

Slavery was an accepted part of the society of Greece. The slaves wer 
for the most part prisoners of war, or victims of some other misfortune. The 
were not in these early days of a very different racial background from that c 
their masters. Their condition varied greatly from city-state to city-state, an 
within a given one, in accordance with what work they did. The Helots c 
Sparta, serfs in formal status rather than chattel slaves, were nonetheless ver 
badly treated and were greatly feared by their masters. The familiar tale 
from Plutarch are revealing. The Spartan leaders would at intervals get 
Helot drunk and exhibit him to the young Spartiates as an object lesson; 
special secret police was organized to spy on the Helots and scent out plans f o 
revolt. The state slaves who worked the silver mines at Laurium in Attica ha< 
a hard life indeed; on the other hand, the police at Athens were commonl 
Thracian slaves, and a policeman's lot is not usually an unhappy one. It i 
perhaps true that an Oxford philhellene like the late Sir Alfred Zimmer 
makes the position of the slave in Athens a bit too good; "fellow-worker" 
a term that sounds like an American corporate personnel manager a fe\ 
decades ago is no translation for SoJlAos. "Slave" is the word. Yet, with th 
exception of Sparta, the Greek world of the free polis was not one in whic] 
slavery appears at anything like its worst. Emancipation was easy, and no 
uncommon; the slave could actually earn money and buy his freedom. Bu 
there is almost no protest against the institution itself; and Aristotle's opinioi 
that a slave is likely to be by nature a slave is no doubt representative enougl 

18 Robertson, Short History of Morals, p. 91. The reference is to the Theaetetus, 14S 


Greece: The Great Age 

to deserve its position in the history manuals. The slave is simply not a free 
moral agent. Plato, in the Lam, has the physician to slaves dictate without 
explanation, the physician to freemen make the patient understand the disease 
and treatment. 19 

The state of the family is no doubt correlated with the moral state of a 
given society. Yet the correlation is nothing as simple as our contemporary 
American worriers about the divorce rate like to make out. In earlier Western 
societies one expects to find the family ties strong, and the father of the family 
powerful. The family in the Greek polis was such a family. It should be noted 
at the start in a society entirely without any provision for "social security,'* 
either through state laws or through private insurance, the family was the 
one possible form of old-age insurance. The Greek expected his children to 
take care of him in his old age; the children expected to take care of their par- 
ents. In Athens, before a man could become a magistrate, evidence had to be 
produced that he had treated his parents properly. A man who refused his 
parents food and dwelling lost his right of speaking in the assembly. It must 
be noted that ordinarily laws of this sort are meant to take care of the excep- 
tional case, the case that makes the news. We need not conclude that Athenians 
commonly let their parents starve. 20 These were firm sentiments, the kind 
Pareto called "persistent aggregates/' and they were strong even in Athens, 
the least traditionalist of the poleis. Greek literature from the earliest days 
is full of evidence of the strength of these family ties. Again, only in Sparta 
in its final decline is there evidence of the kind of dissolution of the family, 
including loose behavior of upper-class wives, that is found at certain later 
stages of Roman history. 

This was no society for the feminist. The "subjection" of Athenian women 
in particular was one of the phases of life in that much-to-be-admired society 
that called for most regrets from Victorian liberal philhellenes. The Athenian 
wife in the upper classes, and, indeed, rather far down the social scale, was 
held firmly to her domestic duties of supervising the household and educating 
her daughters and young sons; she did not go abroad unattended, nor take any 
part in public life, nor in the social life of her menfolk, the dinners, symposia, 
chattings in the market place. Yet the gynaeceum was not quite a harem, and 
even the Athenian wife was hardly in an Oriental seclusion. There is in the 

!9 Plato, Laws, 720, in Works, trans, by B. Jowett, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 
1892, Vol. V, pp. 103-104. 

20 E. Westermarck, Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, Vol. I, p. 536, quoting 
L. Schmidt, Die Ethik der alien Griechen (1882). 


A History of Western Morals 

surviving literature little sign that she was discontented with her lot, which, 
after all, was for those days a secure one. The remarkable Euripides, who can 
usually be trusted to anticipate the nineteenth century, does show traces, 
notably in the Medea, of what, if you do not mind anachronisms, you can call 
feminism. But there is little else. Masculine supremacy was taken for granted 
in the Greek, and in the Greco-Roman, world, a fact amusingly reflected in 
the universal assumption that the queen bee was a king. 21 Demosthenes could 
say almost incidentally of the Greek male always, of course, of the upper 
classes, for poverty makes monogamy quite bearable "Mistresses we keep 
for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of our persons, but 
wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our house- 
holds." 22 

We come at last to sex relations, a topic which, to the pain of sensitive 
moralists, does seem to be in contemporary vulgar English and American the 
first, if not the only, thing suggested by the word "morals." It is a topic of 
major concern to the historian of Western morals, and one to which we must 
recur. Here a few generalizations may help to guide us through the thickets 
that lie ahead and they are thickets, of clinical reports, of pornography, 
sermons, theological writings, poems, novels, faits divers, in all of which the 
clinical and the pornographic are almost always inextricably mixed for no 
one can take sex in stride, not even the historian, who, according to Lytton 
Strachey (who should have known), tends to be not very strongly sexed. 23 

First, human sexual activities would seem to be an especially clear and 
often extreme example of the fact that the word and the deed are not neces- 
sarily very closely united in human life. It may even be true that Homo 
sapiens spends more time and energy fantasying, thinking, talking, and writing 
about sex than in doing anything about it. In the frank language of our era 
or, at any rate, of our novels there is a great deal of paper tail in the world. 
One doubts whether Don Juan actually enjoyed no, not enjoyed, for we all 
know now that the Don was a neurotic incapable of genital satisfaction, but one 
doubts that he had at all those famous 1,003 Spanish ladies. In the West 
generally, and especially after the introduction of Christian prohibitions added 

21 See Vergil, Georgics, IV, 67. Of course, Vergil's use of "kings" in this passage may 
be no more than metaphor. But the ancients could not have understood the sex life of 
the bees. 

22 Demosthenes, Private Orations, trans, by A. T. Murray, London, Hememann 1939, 
Loeb Classical Library, Vol. n, Neaera, pp. 445-447. 

23 L. Strachey, Portraits in Miniature, London, Chatto and Windus, 1933, "Essay on 
Macaulay," p. 177. 

Greece: The Great Age 

zest to fornication, men and women have found in sexual conquests a great 
reinforcement of their egos, a real sense of achievement. Moreover, from the 
very fact that love-making is almost always conducted in privacy, it is easy in- 
deed to claim a conquest never in fact achieved. Again, in a great many periods 
of Western history, not just in our own, verbal frankness about sex has been 
fashionable. There are no doubt many other, and deeper, roots for this con- 
duct. The upshot of it all for the historian of morals should be clear: Do not 
conclude, and especially not for brief periods, such as, say, from 1880 to 1920 
in our day, that because there is a change in the way men talk and write about 
sexual matters there is a corresponding change in their conduct. 

Second, it may be possible to go even further and entertain at least the 
possibility that in routine matters of private morality sex relations, personal 
honesty, family loyalties, in short, much of the moral realm of the Ten Com- 
mandments there is for the inarticulate many something like a rough con- 
stant of conduct over long periods, that in the whole of our short Western 
history there has been relatively little change in this respect. I suggest this 
very tentatively. I do not mean to deny that there are times and places, and 
especially social classes or other groups, of great moral looseness, and others 
of great moral strictness, in terms of the great Western moral codes. But I think 
it possible, for instance, that if we could construct a kind of Kinsey report on 
the sexual behavior of the Western male since 600 B.C., we should find varia- 
tions much less striking than those we find in our literary sources. I feel very 
sure that we should find nothing remotely like the simple development Mr. 
Sorokin traces from an "ideational" period in which men are wholly innocent 
and continent in matters of sex relations to a "sensate" period (we are right in it 
now) in which men are wholly guilty and heroically incontinent in such mat- 
ters. We must recur to this problem of "cyclical" changes in conduct and 
morals, and in the end to the wider one of moral dynamics or evolution. It is 
a very difficult one, hardly to be solved with our present analytical means. 
But it can only be further befuddled if we assume that changes in taste, man- 
ners, and in what the imperfect historical record tells us about what men have 
said about their conduct are in themselves proof that ordinary men and 
women have in fact changed their conduct. The upper classes, for one thing 
because they can afford change, may be expected to change more rapidly than 
the lower classes. The degree to which the lower classes trust and admire and 
imitate the upper classes if you dislike this way of putting it, say "ruling 
classes," or "elites" and "ruled" or "followers" is certainly subject to great 
variations. Morale not in English identical in meaning with morals is also 


A History of Western Morals 

subject to change. To all this we must return in a final chapter, but it will be 
well to keep these problems in mind throughout. 

The Greek in the street of the Great Age seems to have been sexually nor- 
mal enough, if that word has any meaning in relation to sex. His religion held 
up to him no warnings that the gods objected to love-making quite the 
reverse, for Zeus outdid Don Juan, and seems, on the whole, unlike the Don, to 
have enjoyed himself in the process. On the other hand, there is no evidence 
that the Greek in the street was notably promiscuous; he had trouble enough 
providing for his family. He seems not to have been greatly addicted to ro- 
mantic, or obsessive, or any other vicarious sexual satisfaction of the kind we 
symbolize by the word "Hollywood." It is true that we do not have the 
sources we need to have to be sure of this. But we do have the Old Comedy of 
Aristophanes, much of which is clearly directed to the tastes of the many, of 
the "pit," who must, the suspicion lingers in the mind of all but the blindest 
lover of old Athens, have often found Sophocles and Euripides hard going. 
Now Aristophanes is often obscene, but there is in him no trace of boudoir or 
Palais Royal sex, let alone of Hollywood sex. When he actually brought the 
bed onto the stage in Lysistrata, the audience must have been so interested 
in the high comedy and high politics involved in the situation as to have 
suffered no sexual stimulation at all. Aristophanes seems to find sex amusing, 
an attitude often by no means unfavorable to comparative continence in 
actual conduct. 

There is, however, evidence in the Greek literature of high seriousness, 
of an attitude toward sex very different from ours. In a familiar passage at the 
very beginning of the Republic, Plato has the aged Cephalus, who appears 
as a thoroughly conventional old gentleman, remark: 

How well I remember the aged poet Sophocles, when in answer to the question, 
How does love suit with age, Sophocles are you still the man you were? Peace, 
he replied; most glady have I escaped the thing of which you speak; I feel as if 
I had escaped from a mad and furious master. 24 

Hesiod, too, thought of love in terms not of modern romance: 

24 The Republic of Plato. 329, trans, by B. Jowett, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 
1921. Jowett made this translation in High Victorian times. I cannot, as a historian of 
morals, resist the temptation to cite the version of this passage that the late A. D. 
Lindsay made in Georgian times: 'Take the poet Sophocles, for example. I was with 
him once, when someone asked him: 'How do you stand, Sophocles, in respect to the 
pleasures of sex? Are you still capable of intercourse?' 'Hush, sir/ he said. 'It gives 
me great joy to have escaped the clutches of that savage and fierce master. 1 " The 
Republic of Plato, trans, by A. D. Lindsay, London, J. M. Dent, 1923, p. 3. 


Greece: The Great Age 

. . . and Eros (Love), fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs 
and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men with them . , 25 

Sex, in short, is a nuisance, or at best an appetite likely to interfere with the 
conduct of life according to the Golden Mean. This, be it noted, is very dif- 
ferent from the attitude that sex is a form, if not the form, of original sin. We 
cannot know whether most Greek gentlemen agreed with the aged Sophocles; 
the guess is that they did not. This view of love as a misfortune is almost cer- 
tainly an upper-class intellectual's view, a part of that complex, and by no 
means wholly sunny, ideal of the beautiful-and-good. 

Sex figures in that ideal in a form even stranger to us, a form that has 
greatly disturbed modern lovers of Greece. In Voltaire's Dictionnaire philoso- 
phique the topic is treated under the heading "Amour Socratique," a phrase 
that at least avoids the misunderstandings of one like "Greek homosexuality." 
The Greek warrior-gentleman and his young man were indeed lovers in the 
physical sense; of that we should not be led into doubt even by the reluctance 
of ancient authors to approach clinical details, nor by the idealization with 
which Socrates, as reported by Xenophon as well as by Plato, surrounds the 
relation. But it was not the furtive homosexuality of an unfortunate few born 
into abnormality, and, above all, it was not usually a homosexual relation in 
which one of the partners assumed a female or passive role. Both the younger 
man and the older were assumed to play psychologically a masculine, and, 
therefore, noble, role, the older man essentially teaching the younger, preparing 
him for his future part in this world of heroes, fighters, competitors, men, 
still in so many ways of the spirit of the world of Homer. 26 

The sociologist can hardly avoid seeing in Greek pederasty a by no means 
unprecedented form of a relation common among warriors. At the simplest 
level, sexual relations among males are supposedly common where there are 
no females available, notably among sailors in the days of long voyages. No 
such complete isolation existed among the early Greeks, but with them war- 
fare was endemic and seasonal, and it did involve long periods in camp and in 
sieges and expeditions where women were not accessible. Some have main- 
tained that the Greek relegation of women to housekeeping and childbearing, 

25 Hesiod, The Creation, quoted in W. H. Auden, The Portable Greek Reader, New 
York, Viking, 1948, p. 52. 

26 The whole subject is treated with masterly compression and full command of ther 
sources and with a quite mid-twentieth-century attitude in Marrou, A History oj 
Education in Antiquity, Chap, m, entitled "Pederasty in Classical Education." M. Mar- 
rou even permits himself the statement that "paideia found its realization in paider- 
asteia" a statement a bit too sweeping and a bit too clever, but basically accurate. 


A History of Western Morals 

the semi-Oriental exclusion they suffered, was itself the "cause" both of 
pederasty and of the growth of that very Athenian form of professional female 
prostitution to which Demosthenes refers, the hetairai ("mistresses") who 
bring pleasure because they are bright and attractive. The Greek gentleman, 
in this notion, turned to boys and hetairai since his wife, because of her faulty 
upbringing, could not keep up with him in conversation. This seems a some- 
what overintellectualized reason. In fact, the actual situation among the Greek 
gentlemen of the Great Age seems to be an admirable example of the inter- 
action of mutually dependent variables. The warrior-established relation 
worked to increase the undesirability of the wife; the wife's relegation and, 
presumably, resignation worked to increase the desirability of the young male 
beloved, the eromenos. 

Greek pederasty, however, got well beyond the sociology of the family and 
into the sociology of knowledge, if not rather into the sociology of religion, 
for in the Great Age V amour socratique became a means of symbolizing, 
turning into a faith, an ideal, the act and fact of love. The pederast became the 
seeker, the transcendentalist, the mystic, soaring far above the gentlemanly 
limits of the beautiful-and-good. No doubt with most of these pairs of lovers 
the relation was one in which this earth was no more than decently, moder- 
ately, briefly, left for a better one, as when we are moved to hope for better 
things. The older man and the younger were partners in an effort to rise above, 
but not too far above, the common-sense acceptance of an untranscended 
world that does play an essential part in the beautiful-and-good. Certainly, 
generations of commentators have tried to show that Socrates himself, and 
even his rapporteur Plato, meant by "Eros" in those famous dialogues that 
deal with love nothing really Faustian, northern, and indecently, wildly mys- 
tical, but no more than "the joint attainment by lover and beloved of self-mas- 
tery." 27 It remains true that for the small group of aristocrats who practiced 
it, this love became what conventional love between men and women did 
not become in the Great Age, a subject for poet and philosopher, an inspira- 
tion for the artist many of the Athenian vases are dedicated to a male lover 
no mere habit, however pleasant, but a goal. Whether that goal was, in fact, 

5T The phrase is from Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World, trans, by 
Montgomery Belgion, New York, Pantheon, 1956, p. 61, note. M. de Rougemont 
compresses in a brief note this contention that in the Phaedrus and in the Sym- 
posium Socrates is putting a bridle on Eros, not applying the spur. He adds, what most 
commentators would accept, I suppose, that whatever Socrates-Plato may have meant 
originally, subsequent interpreters have made the Eros of the dialogues into "bound- 
less desire," that is, something transcendental, romantic, "Faustian." 


Greece: The Great Age 

a "romantic" one that is, an unattainable goal is a question that canno 
be firmly answered. Even here, however, one must doubt that the Greek of th 
Great Age could ever quite sympathize with Shelley's 

.... where we taste 
The pleasures of believing what we see 
Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be. 28 


With Socrates we have come to that body of writings that for so many gen 
erations has stood for the greatness of the Greeks. There is no need, perhaps 
to repeat here warnings against assuming that even so varied and wide-rangin; 
a body of writing as what we may call the Greek canon tells the historian o 
morals all he wants to know about the Greeks of the Great Age. But it doe 
tell us a great deal, and especially for Athens, where we know the many wen 
at least attracted by the standards of the few, it does not leave us wholly ii 
the dark even about the moral attitudes of the average man. 

The canon is varied and inclusive. There is, first of all, the not very forma 
theogony of the Olympians, the gods themselves, not yet as much embroi 
dered as it was to be in the Greco-Roman world. Then there are the tale 
of the mortals of old, who had commerce with the gods, and who sometime! 
from heroes became gods; these are the tales, the "myths," of which th< 
tragedies of the Great Age are made. Then, woven of the same stuff, but j 
very different thing in the end, there are the "mystery cults" of Dionysus anc 
of Demeter, religious beliefs in which a modern Westerner can recognize i 
communion, an emotional experience he has difficulty recognizing in th< 
formal Olympian faith. Finally, there is already by 300 B.C. a very substantia 
body of what might be called "lay" literature, philosophy, lyric and gnomi< 
poetry, history, even the Old Comedy, in some of which the gods and heroe; 
are treated in a skeptical and realistic temper that can hardly be classified a 
in any sense one of the varieties of religious experience. 

As to the formal Olympian faith, I need add little to what I have sai< 
above (p. 62ff.) . The gods are indeed in a sense and in part like mortals, sav< 
for their power and their immortality. The believer does negotiate with them 
make a contract with them, he does not seem to pray, to worship, as we un 
derstand those words. Yet it must be said emphatically that there is no goo< 
evidence that the Greek in the street, as long as he believed in them at all, eve 
felt that what the gods are permitted to do he was permitted to do. The Gree] 

28 Shelley, "Julian and Maddalo," line 15. 


A History of Western Morals 

moral code the usual code that condemns dishonesty, greed, adultery, that 
backs up law codes does not come directly from Olympus as the Hebrew 
code comes from God on Sinai; but there is such a code, a part of the nature 
of things, in a sense antedating the Olympians, even superior to them. The 
Olympians themselves may often violate it with impunity, especially in such 
matters as adultery, much, perhaps, as the conspicuous people on earth, the 
people whose doings history records, seem to violate it. But for the ordinary 
man, the gods themselves act as moral agents, their authority reinforcing cus- 
tom and law. Even for Alcibiades, imitation of the doings of the Olympians 
is a risky piece of hubris; for the plain man, it is unthinkable. This attitude is 
a difficult one for contemporary American intellectuals in particular to under- 
stand; it is probably much easier for John Doe, reading in his tabloid about 
the goings on of "cafe society," to understand. 

It must be noted that the leaders of Greek thought had long anticipated 
the Christian complaint to come; a Zeus who conducts himself as immorally as 
does the Zeus of the Olympian faith cannot be a good god, and, therefore, can- 
not be a god at all. Either Zeus lives up to the best that has been thought and 
said here on earth or he does not exist. Plato has Socrates say something like 
this often, and had clearly arrived himself at an idealistic monotheism that 
really dismisses the whole Olympian theogony and most of Greek "mythology" 
as unprofitable and often downright wicked storytelling. Euripides, too, often 
criticizes the view of the Olympians we have attributed to the man in the 
street. 29 Here, in fact, would seem to be the beginnings of an important and 
never really greatly narrowed gap between what the educated, the ruling 
classes as well as the pure intellectuals, of the Greco-Roman world made of 
the formal, organized religion of their society and what the masses made of it. 
This was the gap through which Christianity and its great rivals, Mithraism, 
the cult of Isis, and the' like, were to enter Western society. 

The gap was in the Great Age only partially filled by the mystery cults. 
Our sources for understanding the nature of these cults, and in particular for 
understanding their effect on the morals of the masses, are, of course, defec- 
tive. For one thing, they were cults about which their initiates were sworn to 
secrecy; for another, the intellectuals who made and transmitted the great 
tradition of the beautiful-and-good were apparently rather ashamed of the 
emotional abandon of these rites. Even Euripides, whose Bacchae is the 

29 For Socrates-Plato, the last few pages of Book H of the Republic will do as an 
example. Note that Jowett regularly translated 6e6s as God with a capital letter. For 
Euripides, see the Iphigenia in Tauris, line 391. 


Greece: The Great Age 

fullest great literary source for the worship of Dionysus, can hardly be said 
to approach the subject in the frame of mind of the calm observer. Neverthe- 
less, thanks to the labors of generations of scholars, we can be quite sure of 
the most important facts about the mystery cults. The worshiper took part in 
a sacrament by means of which he communed directly with a god, indeed 
became through theophagy a part of a god, and hence immortal. In both 
Demeter and Dionysus there lives the old Western belief in an earth-god or 
-goddess who dies and is born again. At the height of the ritual the worshipers 
underwent an experience that exalted them into the kind of mystic transport 
which, whether it be violent frenzy or quiet rapture, is quite unintelligible, if 
not indecent, to the rationalist temperament. 30 

. As to the moral consequences of participation in these mysteries, we have 
no substantial evidence. The rationalist is likely to feel about them, as about 
their modem equivalents, that they are at best comparatively harmless psy- 
chological outlets for needs the really mature person ought not to have, at 
worst debauches that may lead to immoral conduct. The Christian mystic 
must feel that these Greek cults were too much manifestations of mass feel- 
ings, too public. The American observer can hardly help comparing them to 
revivalist camp meetings, Holy Rollerism, and suchlike manifestations of com- 
municable excitement. At any rate, the cults in their original form did not 
survive the rival excitements of all sorts of other Eastern cults in the later 
centuries. Their very existence is, however, an important and necessary 
modification of the oversimple view of the Greeks of the Great Age as univer- 
sally calm and dignified embodiments of the ideal of the Golden Mean. The 
Greek in the throes of communion with Dionysus could not have looked much 
like those serene statues of the Parthenon. 

There are still more exceptions to this textbook pattern of the Olympians 
and their human followers. If the mystery cults suggest an emotional in- 
continence unworthy of- the "classical" ideal, the Sophists, as reported to us, 
it is true chiefly by their enemy Socrates-Plato, are quite as clearly extremists 
in another direction. Their famous "man is the measure of all things" has been 
variously interpreted, but it does seem inconsistent with deep religious feeling. 

so As an example of the difficulties of interpretation that face the historian interested 
in human conduct and motivation, the dispute over the Eacchae will do very well. 
Interpretations range from the view that in this play Euripides is the rationalist show- 
ing by example the horrors of religious intoxication to the view that he is here the 
wise humanist showing by example the dangerous narrowness of the matter-of-fact 
rationalist. The play itself, duly and romantically translated by Gilbert Murray, is of 
major importance in any scheme of "general education." See the well-known A. W. 
Verrall, Euripides the Rationalist, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1913. 


A History of Western Morals 

It must be repeated that Socrates and his pupils may have completely mis- 
represented Protagoras and his. I should guess it much more likely that these 
Sophists were in fact the first large and well-developed group of the kind 
most familiar to us in the philosophes of the eighteenth century, no-nonsense 
rationalists who held that properly directed thinking could answer all ques- 
tions worth asking and guide men's conduct alike for the individual and the 
general good. No doubt the individualism they taught could act as a dis- 
solvent of old traditional morality, as Aristophanes shows wittily in the 
Clouds, but they probably sincerely believed, as the philosophes did, that the 
new rational morality would lead to a better commonwealth, not to unprin- 
cipled struggle among "anarchistic" and selfish individuals. 

On the other hand, Plato himself clearly goes beyond the limits set by 
the ideals of the beautiful-and-good, the Golden Mean, the human super- 
humanity of the sculptured Apollos and Aphrodites; or perhaps it would 
be safe to say merely that the accumulated weight of centuries of interpreta- 
tion of Plato's writings pushes him over to the side of the mystics, the other- 
worldly, the seekers, or, mildest of words here, the idealists. Plotinus and the 
other neoplatonists in a later age most certainly heightened Plato's transcen- 
dental flights or, if you see things this way, made his nonsense even more 
nonsensical. But surely the Plato who in the familiar parable of the cave 
decides that the world of human sense experience as interpreted by common 
sense is somehow not the "real" world belongs among William James's 
"tender-minded," not among his "tough-minded." More riskily, perhaps, one 
may list him as a Faustian, not as an Apollonian. 31 

Plato's metaphysics, however, need interest us here only as they add to 
the complexities of the "classic" view of life, as they cast doubt on the view 
that the Greeks of the Great Age were too gentlemanly to display their met- 
aphysics. As a moralist he almost always speaks as Socrates, and here, too, 
he presents us with a problem: Does he deepen and widen the ideal of the 
beautiful-and-good, but still within the tradition of his countrymen, or does 
he twist it into an unearthly, and un-Greek, striving for the annihilation of the 
flesh? His Socrates does arrive at the formula "Knowledge is virtue"; and this 
formula was Greek enough so that many of his critics at the time seem to have 

31 Aristotle, who is usually classified as more worldly, nearer the conventional Greek 
tough-mindedness than Plato, nonetheless arrives at an ethical ideal, theoria, which 
has firm overtones of some kind of transcendence of this practical and inconvenient 
world, a sort of quiet, soulful, thoroughly decent ecstasy, far removed from Bacchic 
intoxication, but still an ecstasy, no mere detached philosophic calm. The more you 
look at these Greeks, the less they look like the Elgin marbles. 


Greece: The Great Age 

confused him with his opponents the Sophists. But for the Sophists knowledge 
was apparently instrumental, utilitarian, "practical" almost in our modern 
sense; and for the Socrates of Plato knowledge was the intuitive appreciation 
of God's ordering of the universe, the things his daimon told him were true, 
the things the poor captives in the cave could not really see in their half-light. 
We are almost at the German distinction between Verstand and Vernunft 
the Sophists with their prudent, indeed banausic, bookkeeper's reason (Ver- 
stand), Socrates with his profound insights (Vernunjf) into a world where 
there are no bookkeepers, and no books. 

Plato does, especially in the Republic and in the Laws, come down to 
concrete cases. Yet it is precisely in these details of what he regards as the 
good life, and in the spirit behind them, that he seems most clearly to deviate 
from the Greek, or at least the Athenian, way, the way of Pericles's funeral 
speech. Plato's Utopia is, in fact, an aristocratic communist society, divided 
on lines of caste, though not without possible careers open to approved talent, 
ruled firmly by a chosen few, and pervaded by an austere discipline under 
which the ruling classes, at least, would appear to have to give up the very 
Greek delights of poetry, music, the arts of living, even family, and to have 
to embrace poverty, virtue, the higher life. There are echoes of Sparta and 
a foresight of Christian monasticism, the monasticism of the Teutonic knights, 
perhaps, rather than that of the Benedictines. 32 

The Athenian tragedies of the Great Age are no doubt a fairer reflection of 
what the Athenian gentleman thought about the good life than are the works 
of the great philosophers. Yet here, too, there must be a warning. Tragedy 
Greek tragedy, at any rate is loftly, serious, dignified. A great deal of living, 
even for the best of us, must be a matter of routine, of trivial matters, relieved 
by absence of high thinking, if not actually by lightheartedness. Still, the work 
of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, supplemented by that of Thucydides, 
and even of writers like Herodotus and Xenophon, can take us intimately 
into Greek concern with matters of high seriousness. The ideals we have 
sought to summarize under such words as the beautif ul-and-good, the Golden 
Mean, the agon, are conventional, loftily so, aristocratic, but still a con- 

32 1 am aware that the above is a one-sided interpretation of Plato. He is, in fact, a 
kind of litmus paper for separating the "realists" from the "idealists." (You may put 
this dualism, which is, I think, almost as clear-cut as that between sheep and goats, 
in your favorite terms.) Jefferson, for instance, a realist, reacted violently against 
Plato. See his letter to John Adams, July 5, 1814, and Adams's reply July 16, 1814. 
Correspondence of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, selected by Paul Wistach, 
Indianapolis, Bobbs-MerriU, 1925, p. 107. 


A History of Western Morals 

ventional moral idea; and the high philosophic mysticism of Plato, the mad- 
ness of the mystery cults, are simply out of line. We get a more just sense 
of what the sensitive Greek of the Great Age felt about man's fate from Greek 
dramatic literature. 

This Greek came nearer the view of the world as a vale of tears than many 
later Hellenists like to admit. He had as yet little of Job's final resignation 
that will come later with the Stoics, though not by any means in identical 
form but he was not very far from Job's feeling that man is born to trouble. 
Even granting that tragedy as a literary genre has to deal with somber mat- 
ters, even granting that the Greeks held that tragedy, through what Aristotle 
called "catharsis," purged the soul through pity and terror to leave it filled 
with courage, perhaps even with hope, granting that Greek tragedy by no 
means leaves in the spirit the gnawing, rather nasty despair the modern 
'^problem play" leaves, it is still true that, once more, this is not the sunny, 
ligjhthearted, untroubled Greece of the Apollonian smile. The world of the 
tragic poets is not a world designed for human happiness; or, if you prefer, 
man is, for the tragic poets, born with a flaw that prevents his attaining the 
happiness he wants, a flaw as real to the sensitive Greek as the flaw of 
original sin to the sensitive Christian. This flaw is hubris (fyfyts), still best 
translated as pride, which is also the great Christian sin. 

The parallel with the Judaeo-Christian moral tradition can be carried 
further. Greek hubris is the overweening individual's rebellion against the 
ordering of the universe; Adam's sin, which is ours, is also rebellion, dis- 
obedience. There are obvious and important differences, at bottom the dif- 
ferences between Prometheus and Adam as rebels. Prometheus is a hero, for 
the Greek could not quite believe his gods loved men; the Jew does really 
believe his God loves men. Not even in Aeschylus, the earliest and simplest 
of the three great Greek dramatists, is there rebellion against a personal god, 
but against an impersonal necessity, and therefore a rebellion clearly heroic, 
justified, perhaps; and only in Euripides is there a trace of the complaining 
against the rest of the world that is the mark of the romantic Ibsen. Adam 
is not in the canon a hero, and the tradition hardly motivates his disobedience 
in ordinary human ways; it is just stupid sinful disobedience. Again, both 
the Greek and the Hebrew traditions are rooted in early concepts of hereditary 
guilt Of the Greek house of Atreus, the dark tale of which was a favorite 
topic of classic tragedy, the words of the fourth commandment can certainly 
apply: visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, upon the third 
and upon the fourth generation. 


Greece: The Great Age 

On the moral base for Greek tragedy, on such problems as how far neces- 
sity (dvay/o?) is a blind force ruling the universe with no concern for man, 
how far hubris itself in a man is the product of his own free will, of his blind- 
ness to the warnings from the gods, to the "facts of life," how near to our own 
conceptions of guilt that of the tragic poets is, are questions on which genera- 
tions of interpreters have not agreed. To us, at least at first glance, Oedipus, 
who killed his father and married his mother all unknowing, seems a victim 
of mere accident. He did kill a stranger in a crossroad row, which can seem 
to us as crudely motivated as a fight in a movie Western. But this scuffle it- 
self is an example of the normal violence of Greek life, a violence I have al- 
ready noted (see p. 87); it seems to me difficult to read into Sophocles's 
text any idea that this initial act of violence by Oedipus is, in fact, the act 
of hubris, the beginning of the stain. It is perhaps fairer to say that Oedipus's 
whole career, up to the point where fate overtakes him, seems to have been 
the career of a fortunate but insensitive man, a career open to talents not 
quite tuned to the subtleties of the beautiful-and-good, a tragic career at 
once guilty and innocent. 

However you interpret these tragedies, and the complex of tales out of 
which they are built, you can hardly deny that they display men struggling 
against something not men, something hostile or indifferent to men, yet 
something that has to be reckoned with, adjusted to, in the kind of tension 
we call "morality." That morality is not an easy, "natural," "immanent" 
thing, the true human nature, to be contrasted with the harsh and unnatural 
dictated code of a Jehovah. Necessity seems often to be as harsh and distant 
a master of man as any ever have conceived. Only slowly, and surely only 
among an intellectual elite of a somewhat later age, does the full force of 
the Heraclitean fragment come home: character as fate. This was perhaps 
the final lesson of Greek tragedy. These Greeks by no means saw and felt 
the universe as did the optimistic enlightened of the eighteenth century, our 
own closest spiritual fathers. 

* One major element in the moral history of the Greeks remains to be 
noted: their civic morality, their feelings about the relation of the individual 
to the polis. Here there is no need to question the accepted verdict that 
the Greeks, who made the word "democracy," also made the thing. The 
spotted reality was, of course, quite different from the ideal as set in the 
funeral speech of Pericles or in the writings of modern romantic philhellenes. 
There is no need to bring up the slavery, the coups d'etat, the horrible in- 
ternecine wars among the poleis; nor is there need to insist that democracy 


A History of Western Morals 

s not invented by, say, a Solon or a Cleisthenes much as an Edison in- 
ited the phonograph. Spartan democracy for among the Spartiates 
mselves there was a kind of democracy still looks a good deal like the 
I tribal war council out of which it developed. But Athens about 400 B.C. 
>ks modern indeed, in spite of slavery, a society of great freedom of dis- 
ision, of party rivalry, of decisions made by some kind of balancing, and 
preat deal of talking, among conflicting interest groups. 
Of the individual the free adult male individual in such a society, we 
ist note, first of all, that he was a "citizen," a word one would hardly use 
a Jew, an Egyptian, an Assyrian. He felt, if he were a good citizen, strong 
ligations toward the society; he was a citizen-soldier, and a taxpayer, and 
roter; he took full part in politics, not always a very "moral" part. Above 
, he did feel that in his relations with the agents of his society its "govern- 
>nt" he was no slave, no subject, not even an obedient product of social 
aditioning (these last terms would have been wholly incomprehensible to 
n). He felt that in obeying the laws he was obeying himself. I am aware 
it these are idealistic terms, and I by no means believe that the Athenian 
the street went through a process of thinking out high philosophical prob- 
ns like this in the manner of Rousseau's Contrat social. But he felt some- 
ng of the sort, and we have ample evidence of it. Here is a small but sig- 
icant fragment: Simonides's epitaph on the Spartan dead at Thermopylae 
usually translated as "We lie here, having obeyed their [the Spartan lawful 
ers] commands," but the word 7rei0oju,evot is the passive of the verb best 
instated "persuade," and the passage is literally close to "having been per- 
aded to comply with their commands." Again, there is a famous passage in 
arodotus, often quoted by lovers of Greece. Demaratus, exiled Spartan king, 
at the court of the invading Persian despot Xerxes; he is there, be it noted, 
a result of one of those rough political adjustments, well short of the best 
Meal morality, that occur in the practice of Greek democracy, and is, in 
:t, a traitor. But when Xerxes doubts that the tiny Spartan group will fight 
3 host, doubts that they will fight against such odds even if they were on his 
le, and threatened with the whip, Damaratus replies: 

likewise the Lacedaemonians, when they fight singly, are as good men as any 
the world, and when they fight in a body, are the bravest of all. For though they 
freemen, they are not in all respects free; law is the master whom they own; 
I this master they fear more than thy subjects fear thee. Whatever he commands 
y do; and his commandment is always the same: it forbids them to flee in 


Greece: The Great Age 

battle, whatever the number of their foes, and requires them to stand firm, and 
either conquer or die. . . , 33 

The Greek would have fully understood Henry de Bracton's phrase nan 
sub homine, sed sub Deo et sub lege, a government of laws, not of men. Once 
more, the tough-minded cynic can insist that law is simply what men have 
made, and are making, it, but he misses the point that is clear in the moral 
logic of the sentiments. The Antigone of Sophocles is here the locus classicus. 
Antigone resists Creon, himself as king a legitimate source of commands, 
because his command that her brother, for willful, and unsuccessful, rebel- 
lion, be buried without proper funeral rites is to her an arbitrary act, an 
act contrary to religion, an act he had no "right" to command. Here, surely, 
is the essence of the moral history of the West, perhaps of mankind: this is 
the Promethean gesture of human defiance of not-man in the guise of other- 
man, conscience asserting that higher and lower for the moralist are not 
what they are for the physicist; this is Luther's ich kann nicht anders. Is this 
perhaps hubris, a sin become a virtue, the final victory of Dionysus over 

Greek moral life, like all moral life, was not perpetually keyed to the 
intensity of tragic poetry. Indeed, through all Greek history to the present 
there runs a sly little thread of a most pedestrian, if not immoral, dye. From 
Odysseus on through the clever and handsome young men of Athens, the 
brilliant sophistic manipulators of the new logic, the exiled traitors, the 
Graeculus esuriens of Juvenal, on to the traditional Levantine a word no 
one now dare use of the nineteenth century, the Greeks have had a reputa- 
tion for untrustworthy sharpness. No doubt the Roman and the British ex- 
amples are "race prejudice," the lion's eternal contempt for the fox. But the 
tradition, the reputation, are there, in their way, facts also. 

Yet the sum total of what the Homeric Greeks and their successors of 
the Great Age of the poleis have meant to us for two millenniums is over- 
whelmingly on the side of sweetness and light, on the side of the good, not 
the bad. The beautiful-and-good, the Golden Mean, the agon, hubris, Neces- 
sity, arete, democracy, above all, perhaps, the effort to state clearly what these 
concepts mean in the daily round of life, the effort to set up communicable 
standards of human nature, the effort to think about man's fate, at bottom to 
alter man's fate, all this we owe the Greeks. To them, more surely than to 
that other source of our moral traditions, the Jews, for whom God was much 

33 The History of Herodotus, trans, by George Rawlinson, New York, Tudor Publish- 
ing Co., 1928, pp. 387-388. 


A History of Western Morals 

too invested with earthly concreteness to arouse worry over transcendence 
or "idealism," we owe the characteristic Western tension between acceptance 
of the world of the senses and transcendence of such a world, between con- 
formity and rebellion, between but the polar dualisms could fill pages. The 
Greeks by no means established a fine, healthy, normal middle way in all 
these tensions. But they did experience them all, and have left us an extraor- 
dinary record of their experience. Above all, they sought at the height of their 
cultural blossoming to combine the two excellences the two great prides, 
the two great snobberies, if you are Christian enough, or democrat enough, 
to want to put it thus of the warrior and the priest, the athlete of the body 
and the athlete of the soul. They did not wholly succeed in combining these 
excellences; what success they had did not last long. But they have drawn 
from this attempt their haunting hold on the imagination of the West. 

Yet perhaps we should be most grateful to these Greeks for the fascinat- 
ing, complex, almost always clearly and beautifully expressed account of 
the varieties of human experience we have in their theogony, their mythology, 
their literature, art, and philosophy. Looked at as no more than a great clini- 
cal record of human conduct under the spur of human hopes and aspirations, 
this record of Greek achievement is invaluable. It is complete, finished, and 
yet never-ending. Even if it is no more than a clinical record, that record 
is ours, still. 


The Greco-Roman World 

IT WAS THE ROMANS who put an end to the wars among the Greek city-states 
and who finally united all the Mediterranean world. It is through the Roman 
Western world that the cultural inheritance of the Greeks came to our West 
European ancestors, at least until with the Renaissance men tried to get 
back directly to the work of the Greeks themselves. We cannot, in fact, get 
away from that awkward hyphen; what we have is Greco-Roman. The 
Roman component is a major one. 

For several centuries after the legendary date of the founding of the 
city, 753 B.C., the little agrarian and trading city-state on the Tiber grew 
slowly in the obscurity of its remoteness from the then Greek center of the 
Western stage. The Roman ruling classes were later to become very conscious 
of their place in the now widened world, and of their need for a Homeric 
past. They had their own religion, their own "mythology," their own political, 
legal, and moral traditions, but they hardly had a true "heroic age," or, if 
they did, it is lost forever to men's memories. We can, with the help of 
archaeology, work our way through the prose lays of ancient Rome that 
Livy left us, the noble, moving, but very self-conscious, epic past that Vergil 
gave his countrymen, the Tocquevillean study that the Greek Polybius made of 
his strange captors, and a great deal of miscellaneous materials, laws, formal 
records, and the like, to some firm notions of the moral and psychological 
base from which the Romans started. 

It was a solid base indeed. The old Romans were a people of steady 
habits, disciplined, good citizen-soldiers, distrustful of the arts of the intellect, 


A History of Western Morals 

hard-working, and the cant term will not be kept down "practical." They 
have something in common, in terms of social morality, with all peoples 
known for their cohesiveness, their devotion to routine and discipline, the 
piety of their religious practices not, be it noted, for the intensity of their 
religious emotions for their firm attitude of no damned nonsense in short, 
for their apparently successful and unneurotic suppression of much we today 
think of as essential to the human lot. The Romans have something, at least, 
in common with the early Jews, with the Spartans, with those children of 
Calvin and a stony soil, the Scots and the early New Englanders. 

Here at the very start we encounter in the concrete a factor of great 
importance in any account of what the Romans have meant to the world: 
their persistent, direct borrowings from the Greeks, who attained the prestige 
of cultural ripeness several centuries ahead of the Romans, and toward whom 
educated Romans even into the late Empire always had most mixed feelings 
of admiration, envy, distrust, and contempt. 1 The Romans had a polytheistic 
religion of their own, though no doubt built up from many sources in their 
distant Indo-European past and from borrowings from the Etruscans, with 
named gods and goddesses of specific attributes. The early Roman, how- 
ever, seems to have had a fairly simple and even dull pantheon. When their 
intellectuals ran up against the dazzling Olympian pantheon of the Greeks, 
they did their best to fit the two together. Mercury and Hermes, Venus and 
Aphrodite, and the rest were paired, and gradually the whole body of Greek 
theogony, myth, and fable took over and swamped the Roman. 

It is likely, however, that for the early Romans the major gods of their 
pantheon were less important than the host of intimate gods and goddesses of 
the hearth, the bed, the field, the market place. To the Roman, as Polybius 
pointed out, religion meant a sober, steadying, ritual approach to the tasks of 
living in a world in which a man always needed steadying, always needed to 
feel that the nonhuman could be brought to help him, or at least to be less 
hostile. This Roman faith is indeed and the phrase is Latin a religion of 
do ut des. But the warning we have made already in noting that many prim- 
itive polytheisms and even monotheisms like the early Jewish worship of 
the tribal Jehovah bring man and god together in a contractual relationship 
needs to be repeated here. The very word "contractual," the whole attempt 
to state the relation in our modern languages, especially since the eighteenth- 
century Enlightenment, distorts and falsifies the moral facts of the relation. 

1 Juvenal's Third Satire (see above, p. 19) is here the locus classicus, especially 
lines 58-125. 


The Greco-Roman World 

The early Roman who did his duties to the gods, who displayed pietas, was 
in a state of mind and heart equally far from a man making a business trans- 
action and from a man "going through the motions." He was trying to do 
what he "ought" to do as a moral agent, trying to adjust, or, better, to mold 
his conduct to the scheme of things cosmic his faith outlined for him. Now 
"mold," unlike, say, the contractual term "adjust," does suggest the disci- 
plined, moderate, obedient citizen-soldier the Roman was; it does not, of 
course, suggest the self-abnegation of the mystic, which the Roman was not. 
"Contract" also connotes for us something like a relation between equals. 
But no pious Roman could ever feel himself an equal even in his relation with 
his household gods. The steady moral ways of the Romans of the Republic 
were sanctioned by commands from above. Again, though we can find in 
these early years little sign of the humble contrition of a believer overwhelmed 
by the feeling still conveyed to us in the Judaeo-Christian tradition by the 
word "sin," we can be sure that the Roman knew that if he did wrong he 
would be punished, punished in an afterlife. Polybius, who lived at just the 
time the educated Romans were cutting themselves free, very free, from the 
restraints of the old-time religion, remarked: 

For this reason I think, not that the ancients acted rashly and at haphazard in 
introducing among the people notions concerning the gods and beliefs in the ter- 
rors of hell, but that the moderns are most rash and foolish in banishing such 
beliefs. 2 

Indeed, it should be noted at this point that the accepted notion that the 
formal religion of the Greeks and Romans had very little place for the doc- 
trines of the immortality of the soul and of judgment after death needs some 
qualifying. Our tradition makes too much of the famous passage in the 
Odyssey in which Achilles complains of the dullness of the afterlife; Dante's 
hell and even his paradise are a good deal sharper. But the fact is that the 
immortality of the soul had a definite place in the Olympian faith, and one 
that should not be minimized. We may reasonably believe that for the ordi- 
nary man, even down into the end of the pagan culture, the kind of moral 
sanction such a belief carries with it does exist. Even for the literary, there is 
a kind of wistful reality in the other world. In a famous passage in the Aeneid, 
Vergil describes the crowd coming to Charon's ferry, perhaps not as if he 
really saw the shades, but at least in an elegiac, not in a rationalist and 
rejecting, mood: 

2 Polybius, The Histories, trans, by W. R. Paton, London, Heinemann, 1923, Loeb 
Classical Library, Book VI, 56: 12. 


A History of Western Morals 

To the bank come thronging 
Mothers and men, bodies of great-souled heroes, 
Their life-time over, boys, unwedded maidens, 
Young men whose fathers saw their pyres burning, 
Thick as the forest leaves that fall in autumn 
With early frost, thick as the birds to landfall 
From over the seas, when the chill of the year compels them 
To sunlight. There they stand, a host, imploring 
To be taken over first. 3 

We cannot make explicit and symbolic the ethical ideal of these Romans 
of the first centuries of the Republic; we cannot quite set up the equivalent of 
the Homeric hero, the Periclean beautiful-and-good. But we can get hints 
of what the Roman gentleman the word is not perfect, but it will have to do, 
for it is better than "noble" thought proper and admirable. Livy unques- 
tionably was writing deliberately to encourage old-fashioned virtues that he 
thought, quite correctly, were dying out among the Roman ruling classes of 
the Augustan Age. Still, the tales he records, or perhaps even invents, are 
almost certainly "genuine" in the sense that tales like those of Alfred and the 
cakes, Bruce and the spider, even that of Washington and the cherry tree are 
genuine parts of a national tradition. These Roman tales emphasize courage 
against odds, soldierly obedience, individual heroism, simplicity of manners, 
gravitas, dignity, high seriousness, and pietas, loyal, respectful feelings to- 
ward the established moral order; here are Horatius at the bridge, Lucretia's 
chastity, the patriotism of her avengers, the Iroquoian fortitude of Mucius 
Scaevola, Qncinnatus at the plow; all the long list makes for a firm, even 
rigid, sense of moral obligation. Sparta, of course, comes to mind, but there 
is here a note by no means so clearly sounded in Sparta, a note of straight- 
forward honesty, of piety in the old Roman sense. If you read together the 
early books of Livy and the Lycurgus of Plutarch and some Spartan speeches 
in Thucydides, you will feel at once a difference in the moral tones of early 
Rome and Sparta. 

Moreover, the Romans had a very different attitude toward the uses of 
the human mind than had the Spartans. This fact, indeed, might be deduced 
if the historian dare indulge in deduction from the given fact of Roman 
success in creating the One World of their empire. The Spartans could not 
adapt themselves to any change, could not summon the minimum diplomatic 
and governmental skills necessary for successful expansion. The Romans, 
though it is not unfair to say that there runs through their whole history a 

3 Book VI, 305-314, The Aeneid of Vergil, trans, by Rolfe Humphries, New York, 
Scribner, 1951, p. 154. 


The Greco-Roman World 

certain distrust of the speculative intellect, and, at the very least, a certain 
excessive if not awkward seriousness among their intellectuals, nonetheless 
made excellent use of their minds to adapt their resources to the drive toward 
expansion. They were, as we all know, good lawyers, diplomatists, engineers, 
administrators. Their civic life was by no means an unprofitable adherence 
to custom; on the contrary, out of the struggle of patricians and plebeians, out 
of the wars with their neighbors, they acquired the skills with which, luck 
aiding, they were to conquer what was for them almost the known world. 

Cicero, a conventional person on the defensive in a time when many of 
the old ways were vanishing, is throughout his numerous writings a good, 
platitudinous authority for the old Roman moral outlook. Here he is at his 
average pace: 

But when with a rational spirit you have surveyed the whole field, there is no 
social relation among them all more close, none more dear than that which links 
each one of us with our country. Parents are dear; dear are children, relatives, 
friends; but one native land embraces all our loves. . . , 4 

Yet the ideal seems warmer and more sympathetic in the fragments we have 
of less deliberately improving literature, notably in the inscriptions, which 
are no doubt not without contrivance, but which often ring true. Here is an 
epitaph from one of the lower trades, that of butcher: 

Lucius Aurelius Hennia, a freedman of Lucius, a butcher of the Viroinal Hill. 
She who went before me in death, my one and only wife, chaste in body, a loving 
woman of my heart possessed, living faithful to her faithful man; in fondness 
equal to her other virtues, never during bitter times did she shrink from loving 
duties. 5 

But the Romans could not keep intact the morality of their earlier and 
simpler days. The old Roman qualities of gravitas, pietas, virtus all subtly 
but very definitely different from what the English words derived from them 
suggest to us never wholly disappear, if you look for them, in Roman his- 
tory. But they do not, after the conquest of Carthage and the East, make the 
style, the tone, of the Greco-Roman culture. The loss of the close-knit disci- 
pline, the virtues of the simple life, and the cohesion of the patriarchal family 
can be noted in the very articulate effort of high-minded reformers to revive 
them. These moralists, from the elder Cato, who caricatures the early Ro- 
man type, to the Augustan generation, including emphatically that tardy strict 

* Cicero, De Officiis, trans, by Walter Miller, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University 
Press, 1951, Loeb Classical Library, 1.17(57). 

5 E. H. WarmiBgton, Remains of Old Latin, London, Heinemann, 1940, Loeb Classical 
Library, Vol. IV, p. 23. 


A History of Western Morals 

moralist Augustus himself, certainly exaggerate the completeness of the loss. 
The historian, however, if he must have a general rule in such matters, will 
find the folk wisdom of "where there's smoke there's fire" a bit safer than the 
folk wisdom of the tale of the boy who cried "Wolf, wolf!" 

Livy's own diagnosis was oversimple. As he makes clear in his preface, he 
blames the loss of the old virtues chiefly on increasing wealth and luxury. 
He writes, for instance, of the first part of the second century B.C.: 

At that time the cook, to the ancient Romans the most worthless of slaves, both 
in their judgment of values and in the use they made of him, began to have value, 
and what had been merely a necessary service came to be regarded as an art. Yet 
those things which were then looked upon as remarkable were hardly even the 
germs of the luxury to come. 6 

Cato, though he blanketed his whole age in blame, and thought the younger 
generation was going soft, was especially bitter against the rising intellec- 
tualism of education, and the admiration for those slippery creatures the 
Greeks. The censors in 92 B.C. issued an edict against the new schools of 
rhetoric which is typical enough: 

Our fathers determined what they wished their children to learn and what schools 
they desired them to attend. These innovations in the customs and principle of 
our forefathers do not please us nor seem proper. Therefore it appears necessary 
to make our opinion known to those who have such [newfangled] schools and 
those who are in the habit of attending them, that they are displeasing to us. 7 

One may believe that earlier when the censors said "displeasing" the 
word was strong enough. In the later years of the Republic not even vigorous 
edicts of prohibition worked. The Roman housewife of the early days seems 
to have been in a position not unlike that of the Athenian housewife, or, at 
any rate, if not so secluded, held to rigorous standards of quiet obedience. 
Her emancipation is a clear index of the disintegration of the early Roman 
moral world. Yet already in the Republic one finds efforts to keep the ladies 
good by edict, as, for instance, by forbidding them to drink wine. In a similar 
frame of mind the Roman authorities early in the second century B.C. sought 
to suppress not only in Rome but throughout Italy the celebration of the 
newly imported Bacchic rites. This "persecution" was based on much the 
same arguments that were later to be used against the Christians: the rites 

*Livy, trans, by Evan T. Sage, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1936, 
Loeb Classical Library, Book XXXIX, vi, 9. 

7 Quoted in N. Lewis and M. Reinhold, Roman Civilization, New York, Columbia 
University Press, 1955, Vol. I, p. 492. 


The Greco-Roman World 

were held to lead to all sorts of vile practices, and to make the worshipers 
untrustworthy citizens. 8 

We here encounter clearly for the first time another persistent theme in 
the moral history of the West, and one that confronts the sociological histo- 
rian with some difficult problems: sumptuary, prohibitory, "blue law" legis- 
lation accompanied by official or semiofficial educational propaganda toward 
a return to "primitive" virtues. There is no simple formula available, certainly 
no extreme statement that such efforts are always in vain, always efforts to 
go against the tide, always an indication that a given society is in fact already 
completely corrupt, decadent, "loose," doomed. The historian must try to 
judge each case separately, in the hope that effective comparisons may even- 
tually permit some generalizations. On the whole, what the old republican 
reformers sought to preserve was indeed lost in the later Rome, where, as we 
shall shortly see, the ruling classes and the urban masses in Rome itself and 
in the great metropolitan Eastern centers have left in history an indelible and 
surely not wholly undeserved reputation for conduct below not only the best 
Western standards of ethics, but below the actual standards of conduct in 
most Western societies. 

Yet the Rome that seemed to be about to go to pieces in the second cen- 
tury B.C. did survive and even grow for many more centuries. The Roman 
Empire was by no means what we think of as the welfare state, but it was no 
Oriental despotism, and it could not have been held together by cowardly 
soldiers and corrupt administrators. Even at the top, the balance is not wholly 
on the side of Nero, and wholly against Marcus Aurelius; at the level of the 
now nameless men who did the work, the Empire was served by civil and 
military administrators with high, if not precisely Platonic or puritanical, 
standards of morality. And we can be pretty sure that all over the Empire, in 
the soft East as well as in the hard West, there were at all times thousands of 
country gentlemen as conscientious, as sober and hard-working, as civilized, 
in the best sense of the word, as was Plutarch, who lived in Boeotia at the 
turn of the first to the second centuries A.D. At the very end of the Empire 
we come across a work of the Gallic poet Ausonius, Roman consul in 379, the 
Parentalia, in which he describes several generations of his family in Au- 
vergne and Aquitaine in a spirit of old Roman piety and realism. The men are 
not in the least like the vile plotters of Tacitus, nor the women like the 
scandalous ladies of Suetonius. In fact, we seem to be in nineteenth-century 

8 Livy, Sage, trans., Book XXXIX, viii-xix; Lewis and Reinhold, Roman Civilization, 
Vol. H, pp. 600-601. 


A History of Western Morals 

Lyons, or Edinburgh, or Boston, with one of those sober dynasties of pillars 
of society so characteristic of these centers of virtue. 9 

The competitive spirit survived to the last, certainly at the very top. The 
struggle for the imperial purple is among the most ruthless on record. Even 
in an age of violence, one would suppose that a rough statistical awareness 
that the odds were against an emperor's dying a natural death might deter 
candidates, which it clearly did not. Huizinga suggests that the baths, theaters, 
halls, and other public works given by wealthy donors all over the Greco- 
Roman world were not inspired by feelings of charity, nor even, as they really 
do seem to have been in Athens of the great days, by public spirit, but by the 
desire to show off, by what he calls the "potlatch spirit." 10 Certainly the 
Trimalchio of Petronius was moved by the potlatch spirit; he constantly 
boasts to his guests about the cost and rareness of their food, and has the 
wine brought in with the jars labeled conspicuously Falernian Opimian one 
hundred years old. 11 Vergil, as usual, puts it nobly in the old heroic way. The 
crews are waiting for the signal to start a boat race: 

They are at their places, straining, 

Arms stretched to the oars, waiting the word, and their chests 
Heave, and their hearts are pumping fast; ambition 
And nervousness take hold of them. The signal! . . . 

Considunt transtris; intentaque brachia remis: 
Intenti expectant signum, exsultantiaque haurit 
Corda pavor pulsans, laudumque arrecta cupido. 12 

The key phrase is laudumque arrecta cupido, which I have seen translated 
"and the wild thirst for praise." Humphries's "ambition and nervousness," 
whether you think it Vergilian or not, is a fine description of the eternal 
Western aristocratic agon. 


Rome at almost any time after the end of the second century B.C. has long 
been a symbol for moral looseness, for evil, not only in public but in private 

9 1 expect the convinced primitivist will argue that Ausonius's family came from an 
as yet uncorrupted provincial region, and cannot be taken as typical. This point can- 
not be decisively proved or disproved. But Ausonius did move in the highest circles 
at Rome itself. See Samuel Dill, Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western 
Empire, London, Macmillan, 1910, Book II, Chap. HI, pp. 167-178. Also pp. 158-159 
for Ausonius's advancement under Gratian, and pp. 402-403 for his influence in in- 
creasing the salaries of teachers. 

10 Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, Boston, Beacon, 1955, p. 178. 

11 Petronius, Trimalchio' s Dinner, trans, by Harry Thurston Peck, New York, Dodd, 
Mead, 1908, p. 85. 

12 The Aeneid of Vergil, Rolfe Humphries trans., pp. 117-118, Book V, 136-138. 


The Greco-Roman World 

life. As usual, our sources deal almost wholly with the doings of the small 
group at the top of the social pyramid. We may then begin by fixing our atten- 
tion on these people, fully aware that at the very least, since the masses could 
not afford the luxuries of the rich, they could not practice their vices, certainly 
not as extensively and as intensively. But we cannot assume that there is no 
relation between the conduct and ethical standards of the few and the conduct 
of the many. Like the related problem of how far sumptuary and other moral 
legislation to restore primitive virtues is really effective, a problem briefly 
noted just above, the historian has to do his best to judge each case as it 
presents itself. A corrupt aristocracy and a sober, steady, virtuous populace 
seem hardly to go contentedly and in equilibrium together, but the historian 
cannot close his mind to the possibility that they may, at least in the short 

There must be made the caution once more that our sources for the horrid 
conduct of the ruling classes of the late Republic and, subject to some irregu- 
lar cycles of good emperors and bad, of the Empire in the whole period of its 
nearly five hundred years of life certainly do not do much whitewashing. We 
have so far passed the days of complete reverence for whatever was written 
in classical Greek or Latin that it may be permissible to assert that Suetonius 
and some of the lesser historians of the Augusti had tabloid mentalities. And 
Tacitus, a great historian and no doubt a good man, displays that preoccupa- 
tion with wickedness characteristic of the high-minded reformer as well as of 
the good newspaperman. 

Yet the wickedness is certainly there. To begin with a simple and in a 
way constant or endemic form of misconduct, there is always sex. The ex- 
ploits of Messalina, third wife of the Emperor Claudius, are still familiar in 
our best homes. Her lovers were legion, chosen from all sorts and conditions 
of men. Her sexual endurance one lover after another all night challenges 
belief even in such a record-conscious age as our own. The normal vocabulary 
of sexual abnormality nymphomania, erotomania, and the like pales be- 
fore her achievements. Is she a legend? Perhaps to a degree she is, but 
there can be no doubt that the Empress was a very loose woman, and a palace 
plotter and unscrupulous participant in the murderous competition of high 
politics. There can be no doubt that Augustus's own womenfolk, his wife, 
Livia, and his daughter, Julia, let this restorer of virtuous living down rather 
worse than Napoleon's promiscuous sister, Pauline, let him down in a some- 
what similar attempt to make a renewed aristocracy respectable in the eyes 
of the world. But there is no need to insist further on this point; all but the 
most bowdlerized of history books will give you the details. 


A History of Western Morals 

The literary confirm the sexual looseness of the ruling classes. The corpus 
of Greek and Latin writings together, of course, form the first and still one 
of the major sources of pornographic pleasure available to the Western reader; 
for not until quite recently have men dared to read pornography into the Old 
Testament. We shall come again to the complexity, the range, the modernity 
of this society of the One World of the Roman Empire. In the field of actual 
physical exercise of the sex organs, after all, by no means the richest and 
most complicated field open to human activity, it may well be true that the 
Greco-Roman experience pretty well exhausted the possibilities, that we have 
since invented little really new. The clinical record, though it was hardly 
composed in a clinical spirit, is there, for the normal as well as for the abnor- 
mal. Indeed, most of the actual terms in sexual abnormality are of Latin, old 
Latin, or Greek, not new medical, coinage cunnilinguis, fellatrix, tribades, 
and the like. Nor, at least among the literary, is there a lack of the stepped-up 
psychological tortures of the erotic competition, of what we might fashionably 
call the meta-erotic. Catullus and his Lesbia, Propertius and his Cynthia, are 
evidence that the Roman could build up as complicated a relation between 
the sexes as any modern French novelist. Catullus in particular can range 
from the frankly indecent through the pleasantly romantic and the gently 
cynical to the depths of self-analysis in love, as in the famous and exceedingly 

Odi et amo: quare id faciam, fortasse requiris 
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.^ 

The vices of less complicated self-indulgence are there as well. The 
Roman upper classes have left a reputation for luxury that still echoes 
delicate foods imported from all over the world, warm baths, warm houses, a 
comfort not attained by European upper classes again until our own time, 
and not always then, hosts of slaves waiting on every movement, town house 
and country house, in short, all that very great wealth can bring. Already in 
the last years of the Republic, Lucullus, no mere idler, but a distinguished 
soldier and politician, was to establish such a reputation for what Veblen 
called "conspicuous consumption" that the Lucullan banquet has endured as 
a cliche right down to the present, when Latin cliches have almost vanished. 
Lucullus was a gentleman, and though no Greek would admit it of a Ro- 
man, any more than a Frenchman today of an American may be assumed 
to have some sense of security in good taste. Closer to what inspired Veblen 

is Carmina, LXXXV. Literally, "I hate and I love; should you ask me why, I do not 
know, but I feel it, and I suffer exceedingly." 


The Greco-Roman World 

to his wrath, the Romans, too, had their newly rich. The tasteless excesses 
of conspicuous consumption in which these arrivistes indulged themselves 
and their retainers have been duly reported by the intellectuals who witnessed 
them, and doubtless, after their fashion, enjoyed them. Petronius, in his 
satirical novel, of which we have but fragments, tells in detail about a feast 
given by the fabulously wealthy freedman Trimalchio (he did not quite 
remember where all his estates were) : toward the end, Trimalchio, in his 
cups, tells about a funeral inscription he has devised for himself. 



Elected to the Augustal College 
in his absence. He might have 
held every civil post in Rome; 
but he refused. A worthy citizen, 
brave and true. A self-made man, 
he died worth 30,000,000 sterling. 
Yet he had no college training. 

Farewell to him and thee. 14 

It should hardly be necessary to note that the Roman imperial upper 
classes pursued many of the conventional activities of an upper class, activ- 
ities the censorious moralist lists among the vices. Gambling was high among 
these, and, as almost always, was by no means limited to the upper classes. 
Nor, of course, were the gladiatorial games and the chariot races so limited. 
Aristocrats, emperors themselves, "descended" into the arena, usually with 
a degree of safety not granted to the professional gladiators; that this was a 
moral descent was certainly the general opinion of the solid responsible 
people we shall shortly study as the Stoic gentlemen of the civil and military 
services. Actually, these Roman aristocrats did not have the outlet for per- 
sonal athleticism the medieval knight and the nineteenth-century English 
gentleman and the Americans, too had in field sports, organized games, 
hunting with the horse, jousting, and the like. The horse is important in 
Rome, but in war and work and in the professional horse racing of the circus, 
not in the hunting field. We must come again to this sporting side of Roman 
life. Meanwhile, it is sufficient to note that some of the vices of the upper 
classes of the Empire were a reflection of their exclusion from many ordinary 

14 The Satyricon, trans, as Leader of Fashion by J. M. Mitchell, London, Routledge, 
1922, pp. 104-105. 


A History of Western Morals 

aristocratic physical games of agonistic competition. They, like all aristocrats, 
wanted to make records; they made them in vice. 

This was a society so firmly built on great social and economic inequal- 
ities that the good intentions of the virtuous moralists among the upper 
classes must seem ludicrous to us, who take our egalitarian faith with increas- 
ing seriousness and literalness. Seneca, a conscientious Stoic not untouched 
by a mild moral primitivism of the kind that attacked the French aristocracy 
just before 1789, begins one of his contrived "letters" on the virtues of the 
simple life: 

My friend Maximus and I have been spending a most happy period of two days, 
taking with us very few slaves one carriage load and no paraphernalia except 
what we wore on our persons. The mattress lies on the ground, and I upon the 
mattress. There are two rugs one to spread beneath us and one to cover us. 
Nothing could have been subtracted from our luncheon; it took not more than an 
hour to prepare. . . , 15 

Seneca, a philosopher whose part in high politics by no means confirms 
Plato's hopes for his philosopher-statesmen, reminds us that, in the actual 
business of ruling, these Roman privileged classes indulged in one of the 
most ferocious struggles for power on record, one in which plotting, spying, 
informing, bribery, treason usually work up to murder or suicide. With cer- 
tain interludes of stability, the best known of which is the period of the "five 
good emperors" from 96 to 180, in which Gibbon thought any man would 
elect to have lived if he could, imperial Roman history at the top is a record 
of instability and violence. Perhaps we note it more conspicuously than as 
bad a record, say, among the Merovingians or among the Turks or even 
Latin Americans and Soviet Russians because in the back of our minds we 
expect better of the law-abiding Romans of old. But the reality of this shock- 
ing instability of the throne and of palace politics is unquestioned, and it sets 
for the historian of morals another of his many unsolved problems: murder, 
slander, lying, bad faith, all the role of evil so eloquently, and basically accu- 
rately, called by a Tacitus are morally far more wicked than the fleshly vices 
of gambling, eating, drinking, and promiscuous love-making we have noted 
above. (Do not let nineteenth-century anticlericals persuade you that in the 
Judaeo-Christian tradition the mere vices of the flesh are ranked as deadlier 
sins than the great evils of pride, bad faith, cruelty; as we shall shortly see, 
this is not so.) 

15 Epistolae Morales, trans, by Richard M. Gummere, London, Heinemann, 1920, Vol. 
n, Ixxxvii, 2. 


The Greco-Roman World 

Is there, however, such a relation between the vices of the flesh and the 
sins of the spirit that, as with, for instance, the Roman ruling classes of the 
Empire, one can say that given their luxurious self-indulgence, their more 
serious vices follow in consequence? Almost certainly there is here no direct 
causal sequence. A murderous struggle for power went on among the Italian 
upper classes of the Renaissance, accompanied by great luxury and self- 
indulgence; such luxury and self-indulgence among the upper classes of West- 
ern Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were not accompanied 
by unusual political violence and the immorality of power. Moreover, it must 
never be forgotten that almost always in Western history the ferocious com- 
petition that results in unrestrained abandonment of moral decencies and the 
self-indulgence of an exceedingly rich class go on among the very few, and 
that just beneath them there is a larger group of administrators, professional 
men, even intellectuals, whose conduct is usually vastly better. The Victorians 
and the Marxists have persuaded us that the middle class and middle-class 
morality are consequences of the industrial revolution, and did not exist in 
earlier societies; actually, something very like this solid group has long played 
a part in Western society. Finally, even in the Roman upper classes at their 
worst, there were always men and women who strove to lead the good life 
their cultural tradition made clear to them. We must not forget those five good 
emperors in a row, topped by Marcus Aurelius. 


If the violence and corruption of the imperial aristocracy make one of the 
darker, and naturally more interesting, pages of Western history, the ideal of 
moral excellence that emerges from this very aristocracy and from the groups 
just beneath it in the social pyramid has ever since been one of great prestige 
in our tradition. The Greco-Roman Stoic ideal, embodied in many a soldier, 
scholar, and gentleman who did the work of the Empire and left no trace on 
history, is recognizably a successor to the old Greek ideal of the beautiful- 
and-good. It treasures the past that had produced that ideal. It retains a 
respect for the body, a moderation, a temperateness, reminiscent of the Aris- 
totelian Golden Mean. In this real world, it still retains some flavor of the 
Greek sense of an order of rank in which the mechanic cannot be truly virtu- 
ous and the slave is marked by nature as an inferior. In ideal, of course, these 
Greco-Roman gentlemen were firm believers in the equality of all men. 

The formal philosophical tag Stoic is not altogether fortunate here, but 


A History of Western Morals 

I have sought Li vain for a brief phrase to describe this moral ideal as effec- 
tively as does the beautiful-and-good for the old Greeks, and for an embodied 
hero who incorporates and makes tangible this ideal as does Achilles for the 
Homeric Age. The truth is that we have now arrived at a late age and a most 
complicated society for which it is difficult to find a neat symbol of the 
dominant tone or style. Yet there was such a style or ideal among the upper 
classes. And it was this tone or style that stood for centuries as the major 
cultural heritage left to later times by the Greco-Roman world. Only since 
the Renaissance has Periclean Athens seemed more typical of classical antiq- 
uity than the Rome of Augustus or of the Antonines. 

Stoicism goes back in the genealogy of ideas to the successors of Plato 
and Aristotle in the formal schools of Athenian philosophy. Zeno, the founder 
of what one easily falls into calling a "sect," taught in the Stoa, or porch, in 
Athens at the beginning of the third century B.C. He was an almost exact con- 
temporary of Epicurus, the founder of a rival sect, the Epicureans, which can 
easily be made to come out much like the Stoics. Both philosophies, though 
they of course have metaphysical and epistemological implications often 
made explicit in the course of their long histories are chiefly concerned with 
ethics. Indeed, it is not misleading to say that they arose in the world of the 
disintegrating city-state to give hope, faith, and guidance to men for whom 
the old Olympian faith had become impossibly naive, and who could no 
longer simply find their moral place as citizens in a world of competing 

There is a sense in which the now often used term "secular religion" or 
"surrogate religion" as applied to communism, positivism, "humanism" 
the kind that comes out of Yellow Springs, Ohio, not the kind that comes out 
of Florence and other modern cults may be applied to Stoicism, Epicurean- 
ism, and their variants. The Painted Porch of Zeno and the Garden of Epi- 
curus were both retreats, closets of the philosophers, from which, nonetheless, 
there emerged a form of faith, aristocratic, never widespread among the 
masses Epictetus, the slave who was one of the masters of Roman Stoicism, 
is simply one more example of the eternal Western career open to talents 
but a great deal more than an academic philosophical doctrine. 

Stoicism finds its highest ideal in ataraxia (drapa&'a), "impassiveness," 
clearly a derivation of the Aristotelian theoria, and equally clearly one of the 
many forms of a Western ideal of mystic serenity, of nonstruggle, which the 
West and these same Stoics rarely attain in practice. Ataraxia is a state of mind 
untroubled by the petty cares of this world, unaghast at its many horrors, 
above the melee, the Western sage's approach to the Buddhist nirvana. But the 


The Greco-Roman World 

Roman and the Greek Stoics by no means fled the world and its responsi- 
bilities, and they are not much like even the Buddhists of the Mahayana, who 
nobly forsook their own nirvana to lift others nearer to it; and they are cer- 
tainly not in monastic retreat from the world. One feels about the Roman 
Stoics that their ataraxia was a singularly unreal abstraction, a gesture toward 
the philosophic origin of their faith. There is even a Stoic contempt for this 
world of the flesh; but contempt led the Stoic to no desert, to no monastery. 
He would not bow to the world in so extravagant a gesture as that of the 
monks. Ataraxia visibly meant no more than calm, dignity, self-control, the 
traditional gentlemanly virtues, held a bit self-consciously. 

The Stoic held firmly to his earthly station and its duties. There is even 
a touch in someone like Marcus Aurelius of the pride of the martyr, the man 
who deliberately does what is difficult and unpleasant because clearly he 
wants to do it, gains stature with himself by doing it. For the most part, how- 
ever, the Stoic seems as serene as he says he is, aware that his world is a 
harsh one, that he cannot make it much better, but that he can hardly avoid 
trying to make it such. His self-control curbs even his moral indignation. 
Seneca even "declares his belief that the contemporaries of Nero were not 
worse than the contemporaries of Clodius or Lucullus, that one age differs 
from another rather in the greater prominence of different vices." 16 He is not, 
in short, a moral innovator, a meliorist; but neither is he a despairing or 
simply lazy and indifferent spectator of life. He does his duty. He keeps at 
the job of cleaning the Augean stables, with no illusion that he is Hercules. 
He is, in fact, quite incapable of the engineer-inventor's skill by which Her- 
cules solved his problem. The Augean stables that faced the Greco-Roman 
soldier and administrator were never really cleaned. 

The Stoic held firmly a philosophical doctrine of necessity, which, as it 
consistently has in our Western history, seems to have sharpened his sense of 
the badness of much of the necessary, as well as his desire to change the 
necessary. It is true he would not like the matter put this way, true that the 
textbooks sometimes accuse him of fleeing the world. But his actions are 
unambiguous; the Stoic was a fighter. Seneca's rhetoric is firm indeed: 

All things move on in an appointed path, and our first day fixed our last. Those 
things God may not change which speed on their way, close woven with their 
causes. To each his established life goes on, unmovable by any prayer. 17 

i Dill, Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, New York, Macmillan, 1905, 
p. 10, paraphrasing Seneca, De Beneficiis, 1.10.1. 

IT Seneca's Tragedies, trans, by F. J. Miller, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University 
Press, 1953, Vol. I, Oedipus, 987-992. 


A History of Western Morals 

But this is rhetoric, not analysis or description. Marcus Aurelius was the 
slave of Duty, not of Necessity. 

The Christians were later shocked by the Stoic in fact, generally, Roman 
feeling that suicide is legitimate, even praiseworthy under certain condi- 
tions. One doubts very much whether at the moment of slashing his veins, the 
Stoic seriously went over the doctrine of necessity in his mind and decided 
that some will not his own was guiding the knife. Even the Stoic's approval 
of suicide (how approve the inevitable?) was not unconditional: the suicide 
must not involve any harm to others, directly or indirectly. 18 

The Stoic did not "believe in" the gods of the traditional Olympian pan- 
theon, but neither did he reject the gods at least, he did not reject them in 
the ferocious mood of the modern "materialist" and atheist rejecting Chris- 
tianity. There is some trace of the attitude that a gentleman does not openly 
practice a disbelief that will be imitated with disastrous results to their morals 
by the masses, who do not have the gentleman's sense of noblesse oblige. But 
in fairness to what we may believe to be the ordinary, inarticulate Stoic 
gentleman, it may be said that he conformed religiously out of patriotism, 
out of respect for the past, perhaps out of a feeling that, though the gods were 
not what the vulgar thought them to be, still, there was in the Olympians 
what we should nowadays call a symbolic value. The Stoic was no skeptic, 
though he does have a touch of the modern Christian existentialist. 

He was not wholly a rationalist either; that is, he did not suppose he had 
an answer to all problems of the universe. But what the lonians had started 
had by Greco-Roman times so grown as to penetrate into ordinary lives. The 
Stoic's reason told him a great deal that common sense could hardly have 
told him. One of his central doctrines was that all men are created equal, that 
the differences of race, status, and conduct so conspicuous to the unreflective 
observer are superficial and artificial. Cicero put it baldly in absolute if also 
abstract terms: Nihil est unum uni tarn simile, tarn par, quam omnes inter 
nosmet ipsos sumus (Nothing is so like another thing, so equal to it, as we 
[human beings] all are amongst ourselves) , 19 Slavery could not be reconciled 
with principles such as these, and the Stoic writers insist that the slave is a 
fellow human being, endowed by nature with basic human rights, and that 
fate and human injustice have made him what he is. The great law code which 

18 Westermarck, Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, Vol. II, p. 248 ff ., gives a 
good brief outline of classical opinion and practice of suicide, with many references to 
the sources. 
" Cicero, De Legibus, 1.29. 


The Greco-Roman World 

sums up so much of Roman ideals as well as Roman experience puts it quite 
clearly: slavery is "an institution of the Law of Nations, by which one man is 
made the property of another, in opposition to natural right." 20 

The same Seneca we have just now seen contenting himself with a single 
carriage load of slaves was one of the most articulate in his moral condemna- 
tion of slavery. I do not wish to give aid and comfort to the naively cynical 
anti-intellectual who maintains that men always keep their ideals and their 
conduct in separate compartments of their being, but it does seem as though 
some of these Greco-Roman gentlemen carry the thing too far. Their real 
world was, in fact, one of extreme inequalities of all sorts, one in which 
slavery formed the economic base of the labor force, one in which there was 
a true urban proletariat the word itself is Latin in the great cities, one in 
which there was surely no less than the usual suffering and deprivation that 
has gone with the human civilized lot. Yet they talk and write about the 
equality and dignity of man, about the law of nature so superior to our petty 
particular laws, about that state of self-mastery they call "ataraxia," so diffi- 
cult for most of us to attain on an empty stomach. They are cosmopolitans, 
above the narrow patriotism of the city-state; yet do these Roman gentlemen 
really feel they are no better than the motley set of peoples they rule? Was 
not Pontius Pilate perhaps at heart an anti-Semite? 

It is not easy to answer these questions from our very miscellaneous 
sources. There are signs that the attitude put neatly in Juvenal's Graeculus 
esuriens never wholly left the Roman gentleman; he must have felt himself 
superior to the painted Britons as well as to the already somewhat Levantine 
Syrians. Yet we, who are so used to great systems of moral values based on 
theories of race or other form of group superiority, Nordic, Latin, Anglo- 
Saxon, American, Slavic, must be struck by the absence of any such system- 
atic concepts among the Greco-Romans of the Empire. The Stoicism we 
are dealing with here takes, as we have seen, just the opposite view, that racial 
differences among men are superficial and unimportant. 

One part of the answer to our difficulty here must lie in the fact that the 
One World of the Empire was one only at the top, among the officers, civil 
servants, lawyers, financiers, landlords, and intellectuals (these categories are, 
of course, not mutually exclusive), Greek, Roman, or bilingual in language, 

20 Institutes, i.3.2. quoted in Westermarck, Origin and Development of the Moral 
Ideas, Vol. I, p. 693. Westermarck on pp. 689-694 of this work gives a good summary 
of Greek and Roman ideas and attitudes toward slavery, with many still-useful 


A History of Western Morals 

Greco-Roman in education and culture, who ran the Empire. Even among 
the masses there was no doubt in that very modern world a great deal more 
actual moving about, physical as well as social mobility, than we culture- 
bound moderns, who feel that no one ever moved much or far before the 
steam engine, can readily admit. Christianity, which was not, as was Islam, 
at first spread by physical conquest, could hardly have spread as it did in a 
world of compartmentalized territorial units. Still, in the sense that we expect 
a nation-state today to have a certain homogeneity of culture, right down to 
the bottom of the social pyramid, it is clear that the Roman Empire had noth- 
ing of the sort, save at the top. The Stoic gentleman was by no means isolated 
from "reality," by no means living in an ivory castle, but he did not have the 
facts of life among the masses constantly nagging at him, could generalize, 
rationalize, in the company of his equals, in a long serene tradition that no 
vulgar concern for immediate practicality, and certainly little concern with 
what we know as science-cwm-technology, could disturb. 

Yet, you may observe, the Romans were a "practical" people, great engi- 
neers and builders, civilian as well as military. Surely they never talked about 
ideal sewers, or entrenchments that only seemed to be different, but were in 
accord with natural law identical, did they? The answer here, I should think, 
would be, first, that the Romans did succeed in keeping the practical and the 
ideal nicely separated, a separation made easier, perhaps, by the fact that 
the ideal was imported from the Greeks. The later Romans who wrote on 
practical matters, Pliny, Varro, and the rest, do not attempt to philosophize 
abstractly about farming, stock raising, estate management. Again, there 
lingered in their education much of the old Greek feeling about banausia; 
technical skills, even engineering skills, were certainly necessary to the 
gentleman-officer. But he learned them by apprenticeship and practice, not in 
formal schooling. Civilian engineering seems generally to have been the work 
of craftsmen of great skill, but not members of the ruling classes. This sepa- 
ration of the real and the ideal is no hypocrisy; it is merely a habit, a consola- 
tion. Here, as so often, Marcus Aurelius, fighting the Marcomanni on this 
earth, meditating eternal peace in the next, is typical enough. 

Epicureanism may seem to the determinedly pragmatic mind to counsel 
in real life much that Stoicism counsels, indeed "to come out at" much the 
same thing. Epicurean apraxia (aarpa&a) 9 "not acting," like Stoic ataraxia, 
was a withdrawal from the petty struggles of an active life, the attainment of 
a balanced serenity, but still no full retreat into seclusion. Epicurus and his 
followers did, however, insist on a "materialist" cosmology, and they did use 


The Greco-Roman World 

that dangerous word "pleasure" (^SovjJ, hedone, whence hedonism) to de- 
scribe the good life. In vain and this is clear in the few fragments we have 
from Epicurus himself did they protest that true pleasure is not swinish 
behavior, not the coarse indulgence of the senses, but quite the opposite, the 
difficult mastery of the low senses by the higher ones, and the cultivation of 
the higher arts not so much self-indulgence as self-denial. At the very least, 
this is the Aristotelian ethics of the Golden Mean; but in keeping with the 
general high seriousness of Hellenistic and later Roman ethical thinking, and 
with the pessimism common among intellectuals of these centuries, Epicu- 
reanism developed into a most austere and existentialist ethics. Its best repre- 
sentative is the Roman Lucretius of the last years of the Republic, whose long 
philosophical poem On the Nature of Things must owe its preservation in 
part to the admiration even his religious and philosophical opponents have 
felt for it. Indeed, after two thousand years, no one has yet succeeded in 
investing the bleak world view of atomistic materialism and rationalist resig- 
nation in the face of necessity with the emotions appropriate to the religious 
spirit as does Lucretius. The poem has remained a consolation, a sursum 
corda, to many a rebel against conventional Christianity in the modern world. 
Yet the old tag "a hog from Epicurus's sty" has stuck to Epicureanism 
and to hedonistic ethical systems of all kinds ever since even, to the despair 
of the least sensual and sensuous of thinkers, John Stuart Mill, to the Eng- 
lish Utilitarianism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 21 No doubt 
Lucretius is a most stoical Epicurean, far out toward the immaterial, the 
spiritual, on the spectrum of definitions of "pleasure"; there is no doubt in 
the balance that conventional Epicureanism did lean toward a softer life, 
toward abandonment of the struggle with himself that the Stoic so enjoyed. 
Still, the historian of morals must record that the bitterness of the attacks on 
the preachers of swinish self-indulgence who set up pleasure as an ethical 
standard seems, in view of the most unswinish nature of the pleasure most 
ethical hedonists preach, to be most unjust. It is, however, not unreasonable, 
for ethics even more than other branches of formal philosophy does seep 
down to the average educated person; and "pleasure" in all our Western 
tongues does to the unreflective mean . . . well, something closer to what 
"immoral" means to him than what "moral" does. We must return later to 
this obvious theme that our supposedly materialistic and practical West has 
never widely professed a purely hedonistic ethics. 

21 Horace, "Epicuri de grege porous," in Epistolae, Book I, No. 4, line 16. This light- 
hearted piece of irony has been taken in earnest. 


A History of Western Morals 

Still another current of Greco-Roman thought mingled with Stoicism 
and Epicureanism in various ways, and contributed to the world view of 
these centuries. For this current the best word is still "rationalism." It is a 
current clear in what we know of the earlier Sophists, but in the Greco- 
Roman world this current developed to a point as extreme as any it has yet 
reached. The rationalist must always admit that some men indeed, he 
usually thinks that most men sometimes behave irrationally, do things 
that reason can show will not in fact attain the end the doer aims at, give 
reasons for acts that are not real reasons, believe in the existence of super- 
natural beings reason shows cannot exist, and so on; but the rationalist also 
holds that there is always a rational explanation for the irrational, that he 
can correct and ultimately eliminate the irrational, at least among the 
enlightened few. These Greco-Roman times produced a characteristic figure 
of this sort, one whose name still sticks to the effort to root the unreasonable 
in reason, or, at least, given early ignorance, in a "reasonable" error* 
Euhemerus, a Greek who flourished at the beginning of the third century B.C., 
sought systematically to explain the gods and goddesses of the Olympic pan- 
theon as heroes and heroines of olden times transmuted into supernatural 
beings by folk imagination. We have only the barest fragments of his work, 
but his reputation grew, and the term "euhemerism" is still used for the effort 
to explain mythologies by naturalistic-historical methods at their simplest. It 
is a method that tends to be revived in any rationalistic era; many philosopher 
in the eighteenth century simply could not believe that those admirable 
unprejudiced Greeks and Romans, happily free from the superstitions of 
Christianity, could have had their own superstitions and irrationalities, save as 
heirs of sensible but uninformed "primitive" ancestors. 22 

These rationalists occasionally express clearly another position that recurs 
in the eighteenth century, the view that for the unenlightened masses atheism 
is a dangerous thing, since they need the moral policing religion, in spite of 
its superstitions, gives them. Strabo observes that 

It is impossible to lead the mass of women and the common people generally to 
piety, holiness and faith simply by philosophical teaching; the fear of God is also 
required, not omitting legends and miraculous stories. 23 

You will note here the implication that women even in the privileged classes 

22 On this see the forthcoming The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Gods by Frank E. 
Manuel, Cambridge, Mass , Harvard University Press, 1959. 

23 Strabo, quoted in L. Friedlander, Roman Life and Manners under the Early Em- 
pire, Vol. Ill, trans, by J. H. Freese, London, Routledge, 1909, p. 85. 


The Greco-Roman World 

are not to be trusted as rational creatures. This is one of the constants of West- 
ern culture, certainly not weakened by the advent of Christianity, and not 
unknown even in our own day. 

Rationalism turned on the dissection of the classical pantheon becomes 
religious skepticism not, be it noted, necessarily full philosophical skep- 
ticism. The controlled, or incomplete, rationalism of the Socratic tradition 
rejects the anthropomorphic gods of Olympus but insists on a spiritual reality 
superior to this world of the flesh and the senses, and not to be approached 
by mere prudential and instrumental thinking. There is a strong strain of this 
pagan monotheism its god is a bit less remote than the god of eighteenth- 
century deism in so representative a man as Plutarch. 24 

The Epicureans took another and more clearly deistic tack. This is the 
position, eloquently put by Lucretius, that the gods are indifferent to the fate 
of mankind. A fragment of an early Latin poet, Ennius, puts very clearly the 
basis of this distrust in a simple question of theodicy: the gods cannot care 
about men, for if they did the good man would be happy and prosper, the bad 
man unhappy and fail, which is not so. 25 

It is not far from this grave doubt to lighthearted doubt, or at least to 
whistling in the dark. We have from the second century A.D. abundant writings 
of a Greek rhetorician, satirist, and popular lecturer, Lucian of Samosata. It 
is certain from these writings that Lucian was very clever, very gifted verbally, 
and that he was fully aware, as most of his sort are, that the clever rarely are 
entrusted with the work of the world, even though they know so well how to 
do it. What is not at all clear, since we know little in detail of his life, is 
whether he accepted this badly run world or rejected it. He has been compared 
to Swift, a superficial comparison indeed, for there is little trace in Lucian of 
the moral horror Swift has for the world. He is at least as witty as Voltaire, 
and more fanciful, but it is hard to thinV of Lucian fighting for the rehabilita- 
tion of a Galas. You can argue that Lucian was just a good entertainer, that 
the spectacle of human folly amused rather than outraged or elevated him. 
He is certainly irreverent. One of his dialogues, "Zeus Cross-examined," is 
a fine sample of the lighthearted rationalist playing with some old metaphys- 
ical problems. The central issue is one familiar to Christians: how to reconcile 
determinism with any system of rewards and punishment for human exercise 

24 For example, Plutarch's Moralia, De Iside et Osiride, 78. 

25 Nam si curent, bene bonis sit, male malis, quod non est. Quoted in Albert Grenier, 
The Roman Spirit in Religion, Thought, and Art, London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trub- 
ner, 1926, p. 125. 


A History of Western Morals 

of free will. Zeus grants the difficulty at once, but he will by no means give 
up determinism. The dialogue is bright and charming, more like the work 
of a Diderot than a Voltaire, and most reminiscent of the French eighteenth 
century. Lucian was much surer that God and the gods were dead even for 
the mass of mankind than the philosophes could be. In "Timon the Misan- 
thrope" he has Timon act, one guesses, as his own mouthpiece in addressing 

Mankind pays you the natural wages of your laziness; if anyone offers you a victim 
or a garland nowadays it is only at Olympia as a perfunctory accompaniment of 
the games; he does it not because he thinks it is any good, but because he may as 
well keep up an old custom. 26 

The most difficult problem Lucian presents to the historian of morals is 
this: How far does he represent a state of mind common to at least an impor- 
tant minority in his world? Lucian does not urge his listeners to go out and 
lead immoral lives immoral by the relatively constant standards of Western 
ethics. But he does not preach, and he does report without censoring it directly 
an immense amount of trickery, backbiting, pretense, irresponsibility, down- 
right vice and evil. There is a quality in Lucian that must seem to the very 
serious-minded moralist about as repugnant as any human attitude can be, 
actual amusement over the spectacle of human wickedness. And it would 
seem that a society wholly composed of Lucians would be at least as bad 
as a society wholly composed of Messalinas, and, fortunately perhaps, even 
more impossible. But the historian of morals, in contrast to the moralist, can 
hardly entertain such hypotheses. Lucians did not exist in large numbers. 
Lucian himself was certainly listened to, supported, but by a fashionable 
minority of intellectuals and would-be intellectuals. He is, granted, inconceiv- 
able in early republican Rome, in Judaea at any time; the Victorians had their 
doubts about him. There is a problem, to which we must return in a final 
chapter, of the relation between fashionable skepticism, devotion to the 
clever and the cutting, contempt for conventional morality as dull, and so on, 
and the morale of a whole society, its ability to keep on going. Here we may 
note that the popularity of Lucian and his like is an indication that some part of 
the literate classes of the Roman Empire at its height did admire fashionable 
cleverness and a degree of skepticism. 27 

26 Lucian, Works, trans, by H. W. and F. G. Fowler, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 
1905, Vol. I, p. 32. 

27 A minor problem from our point of view, but an interesting one, is set by the very 
survival of the manuscripts of Lucian's work He should have been about as objec- 
tionable to the early Christians as any pagan author. One suspects that at crucial points 


The Greco-Roman World 

We have already noted, however, that probably even more of these literate 
classes of the Empire were high-minded Stoics, serious men who took their 
responsibilities seriously. There are even signs of a continuing pagan ortho- 
doxy, no doubt on the defensive, but not despairingly so. The minor historian 
and moralist Aelian, who flourished in the early third century A.D., finds even 
the philosophers of virtue dangerous, and believes the old gods are still good 
gods. He tells the exemplary story of Euphronius, who did not believe in the 
gods, but who, having fallen seriously ill, dreamed that he must burn the 
writings of Epicurus, knead the ashes with wax, and apply the whole as a 
poultice to his belly in order to recover. He was so impressed with this dream 
that he became a pious believer and a good influence forevennore. In a pas- 
sage in his Various History, Aelian "praises the barbarians, who have not 
become alienated from the faith by excessive education like the Greeks; 
amongst the Indians, Celts and Egyptians there are no atheists like Euhe- 
merus, Epicurus, and Diagoras." 28 

Finally, there were in this One World of the Empire a very great many 
pagan cults and beliefs, surviving forms of the older pagan mysteries, impor- 
tations of sacramental faiths from Egypt, Syria, Persia, and, of course, the 
rising Christian faith. Among the intellectuals for whom Stoicism was too 
austere, rationalism and skepticism quite unsuitable, there flourished an 
elaborate amalgame of philosophy and theology known as Neoplatonism, of 
which the chief exponent was the third-century Greek writer Plotinus. We can- 
not here possibly go into the twists and turnings of this very cerebral set of be- 
liefs, which, as Gnosticism, once threatened to take over Christianity. It is 
otherworldly, mystic, eternity-seeking, but also very verbal, and, in the primary 
sense of an overworked word, sophisticated. Its adepts, whatever else they 
may have been, were certainly no skeptics, no materialists. We have no evi- 
dence that they led low lives of self-indulgence; but we have no evidence that 
they led simple lives of altruistic devotion. The odds are firmly against the 
latter. They seem to have been few in numbers, but most articulate. Some of 
them were certainly charlatans, exploiting the need of a privileged and edu- 

in the lives of various manuscripts some of the good Christian fathers yielded to the 
temptation to play with the forbidden Also, of course, Lucian made formal pagan 
religious beliefs ridiculous indeed. The historian will note that W. H. Auden in his 
Portable Greek Reader refuses to include any Lucian in his anthology, on the grounds 
that Lucian is not fit reading for us today, "haunted by devils" as we are. See his 
comment in his preface, p. 7. 

28 L. Friedlander, Roman Life and Manners, Vol. HI, pp. 97-99. Aelian's own words 
are: He told all that he had heard to his nearest relatives, who were full of joy, be- 
cause he had not been rejected with contempt by the god. Thus the atheist was con- 
verted and was ever afterwards a model of piety for others. 


A History of Western Morals 

:ated but often idle and irresponsible upper class for a faith, an interesting 
aith, a privileged faith, and one that does not demand much real or symbolic 
jweat or worry a theosophy, in short. Lucian has fun with them, a fun that 
jeems for him almost bitter. In his "Sale of Creeds," Hermes as auctioneer 
)uts up for sale "Pythagoreanism" Pythagoras was the pre-Socratic founder 
rf the first of these sects of illuminati and long a good butt for common sense 
and goes into his spiel: 

"low here is a creed of the first water. Who bids for this handsome article? What 
gentleman says Superhumanity? Harmony of the Universe! Transmigration of 
iouls! Who bids? 29 

Yet out of all this welter of beliefs among which, as I have insisted, it 
seems fair to conclude that a kind of moderate Stoicism was in fact the 
accepted faith of the great majority of the working ruling classes of the Empire 
right down to the end a history of Western morals must emphasize the ripen- 
ing of a way of thinking about ethical problems that transcends the actual 
specific content of these many creeds. Here there comes out fully what had 
been begun far back in Ionia, the concepts of nature, of natural law, and of 
human nature, concepts in which the "is" and the "ought," the descriptive, the 
explanatory, and the evaluative are mingled it is not unfair to say, often 
confused in a characteristic Western manner. The "natural" is, in this 
classical tradition (definitely not in the romantic tradition), what the cor- 
rectly thinking thinker discovers as the uniform element in the apparently 
diverse and changing phenomena which his sense experience, as organized by 
unthinking common sense and habit ("conditioning"), presents to him. The 
natural is thus the regular, the predictable, in contrast to the sporadic inter- 
vention of an unpredictable supernatural. Thunder is natural, the result of the 
working out of regular meteorological forces; Zeus hurling his thunderbolts 
when the mood strikes him is unnatural, and in fact nonexistent, a "myth." 
The specific prescriptions and penalties in actual law vary from people to 
people, in earlier days from town to town; but the student of jurisprudence 
who will examine with this tool of rational analysis which is his mind these 
diverse laws will be able to classify them in accordance with what they have 
in common. He will note that for a valid contract there will be certain minimal 
requirements everywhere; he will thus arrive at the concept of a universal law, 
the law of nature. Finally, the man who simply looks at his fellows in the street 
without thinking will see them as so many separate individual beings, tall and 
short, handsome and ugly, Roman and Syrian, slave and free, and so on 
2& Lucian, Works, Fowler trans. Vol. I, p. 190. 


The Greco-Roman World 

indefinitely; the thinker will see in these varied individuals man, the human 
being who is everywhere the same beneath these apparent differences. 

This last statement may be misleading. The familiar statement that human 
nature is everywhere the same did not mean to the Stoics and the other think- 
ers of the Empire that differences in individuals say, in bodily build or in 
disposition or temper are nonexistent, but, rather, that they do not exhaust 
what can be said about human beings; from their point of view it was even 
more important to note that there are limits to the range of variation in 
individuals, that all have certain minimal bodily functions in common, fhat 
all have minimal spiritual characteristics in common. What is in common, the 
regularities and the uniformities that the discerning mind sees are not just 
what we should call statistical averages, any more than the Aristotelian 
Golden Mean is a statistical average or mean. The regularities are nature's 
plan, what men ought to be. 

By an easy transition the man thinking along such lines slips from analysis, 
classification, the search for uniformities that will allow prediction, into 
moral purposiveness, into a search for uniformities that will provide goals 
toward which other men can be persuaded, or forced, to strive to mold their 
conduct. In the purest tradition of modern natural science this transition is a 
kind of betrayal, a piece of intellectual dishonesty. To the historian, it is one 
of the abiding ways Western men think and feel, which in practice has proved 
to be an effective means of changing, above all, of widening, the economic, 
social, and political organizations in which men live. This paradoxical use of 
the concept of Nature as what ought to be so as to bring about changes in the 
unnaturally natural of the given moment has really worked. Remote as some 
of the more extreme and abstract concepts of what this Nature, and human 
nature, were those of the Stoics, for instance, or those of the eighteenth- 
century philosophes from the "facts of life," there remained this curious 
intellectual and, therefore, moral link with these same facts, an inescapable 
link. The classical tradition of "reason" has never quite been able to deny, 
escape, transcend, suppress the vulgar here, now, and imperfect. Even Plato 
is not a very good mystic, not in the sense that St. Teresa or St. John of the 
Cross are good mystics; Plato cannot help arguing. 

It is this never-quite-severed Greco-Roman link with the world of our 
sense experience shall we say, the "minimally organized world" that makes 
the real basis for the commonly exaggerated distinction between the He- 
braic and the Hellenic in our Western moral and intellectual tradition. Mr. 
W. T. Stace, as I have noted above (Chapter in, p. 56) puts the distinction 


A History of Western Morals 

in morals as one between a Hebrew imposed code and a Greek immanent 
one, a Hebrew supernatural and authoritarian source and sanction for morals, 
a Greek source and sanction flowing from within human beings, inside human 
"nature." Now the Nature that advised Cicero or Seneca seems to me about 
as remote from this world as the God that commanded Moses and David, and 
actually rather more remote than the God that inspired Isaiah. No doubt 
Spengler is giving way to his anger against the classical tradition when he 
writes that "Nature [the concept of nature] is a function of the particular 
Culture." 30 Still, the curiously hypostatized concept of nature as moderation, 
regularity, order, decency the list could be long, scandalously not composed 
of logical synonyms, but with a strongly consistent affective tone the con- 
cept of nature which gets fully developed in the later Empire can hardly seem 
to most of us today to describe, let alone flow "immanently" from, nature 
as it appears in geophysics, meteorology, biology, or human nature as it ap- 
pears in formal psychological studies. 

Such a Nature as that of Cicero or Seneca must seem rather the ideal of a 
privileged class in a culture that no longer sought to apply its ideals to all of 
its members. It is an ideal that still attracts, perhaps because it is at least as 
unattainable and, therefore, attractive to Western man as any boundless de- 
sire. Martial, whose life, to judge from most of his poetry, did not much 
resemble the ideal, has left a fine statement of it. 

Martial, the things for to attain 
The happy life be these, I find: 
The riches left, not got with pain; 
The fruitful ground; the quiet mind; 
The equal friend; no grudge, nor strife; 
No charge of rule nor governance; 
Without disease, the healthful life; 
The household of continuance; 
The mean diet, no delicate fare; 
Wisdom joined with simplicity; 
The night discharged, of all care, 
Where wine may bear no sovereignty; 
The chaste wife, wise, without debate; 
Such sleeps as may beguile the night; 
Contented with thine own estate, 
Neither wish death, nor fear his might. 31 

3 Spengler, Decline of the West, Vol. I, p. 169. 

3i Martial, Book X, No. 47. This poem of Martial's has been often translated. I give 

in modern spelling that of the sixteenth-century Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. The 


The Greco-Roman World 

All told, we know quite a bit about the condition of the masses, the common 
people, of the One World of the Roman Empire. We do not by any means 
know enough to risk comments on the general level of sobriety, of steady ways, 
of chastity in contrast to the more lurid vices in all parts of this great territory. 
We may believe that the country folk were simpler, perhaps more honest, 
though probably not much more chaste, than the city folk. Such, at least, was 
the common belief of most intellectuals of the time, as it was to be at later 
periods of European cultural life when great cities give the moralist something 
to complain about. But at least for Rome we have evidence that here were 
some million human beings living, on the whole, in one of the moral troughs 
of Western history. 

More particularly, we know a great deal about one of the pursuits of the 
urban masses that has almost always shocked later commentators the glad- 
iatorial games. It should be clear that we are here dealing with a special and 
peculiar phase of moral history, a case, like that of Greek pederasty in the 
Great Age, not a common phase of human moral development. There are 
recurring examples of crowds of men and women witnessing with interest and 
pleasure the physical suffering of their fellows. The histories all bring out the 
hangings at Tyburn in London right down almost to Victorian times; Huizinga 
devotes a whole chapter to the fascination people in the Middle Ages felt for 
the spectacle of human suffering. 32 But these are relatively sporadic and iso- 
lated instances, not organized and regular mass displays for public amuse- 

reader may be amused to see what the twentieth century makes of it Here is Mr. 
Gilbert Highet: 

To bring yourself to be happy 

Acquire the following blessings: 

A nice inherited income, 

A kindly farm with a kitchen, 

No business worries or lawsuits, 

Good health, a gentleman's muscles, 

A wise simplicity, friendships, 

A plain but generous table, 

Your evenings sober but jolly, 

Your bed amusing but modest, 

And nights that pass in a moment; 

To be yourself without envy, 

To fear not death, nor to wish it. 

Latin Poetry in Verse Translation, ed. by L. R. Lind, Boston, Houghton Miffim, 1957. 

pp. 272-273. 

32 J. Huizinga, Waning of the Middle Ages, London, Arnold, 1927, Chap. I. 


A History of Western Morals 

ment, as at Rome. And such horrors as the French Reign of Terror, the 
mass murders by the Nazis, those of the Yezhov period in Russia, are 
obviously very different things indeed, in no sense part of the daily delights 
of their participants. The Spanish bullfight of our own day does have its anal- 
ogies with the Roman games; automobile racing probably holds some of its 
fans by the attractive possibility of witnessing sudden death. Let us content 
ourselves with observing that in the West there seem always to be numbers 
of people who do not find it repugnant to witness the public display of 
cruelty to men and animals, or at least to await the dramatic possibility of 
violence. The fact remains that only in Rome has this been an organized and 
widely approved public pursuit. Undergraduate American editorials that 
equate our football with the gladiatorial games are wide of the mark. 

The shows were many and varied. The bloodiest were the various forms 
of individual and group combats to the death, and the combats between 
beasts and men and among beasts, Mercy could be shown, as we all know, 
for a beaten fighter who put up a good show; but "thumbs up" could hardly 
apply to mass combats, and there is no evidence that the Roman crowd was 
a kindly one. Even where blood was not deliberately planned to flow, the 
circuses, the chariot races, the spectacles were expensive, full of accidental 
violence, and by no means demanding on intellect or taste. Rome with its great 
Colosseum and its Circus set the pace, but in the West of the Empire, at 
least, the provincial centers aped the metropolis, though they could not afford 
the lavishness of display and bloodshed the emperors and other donors felt 
obliged to give the Romans. Crowds were large even by our modern standards; 
the Colosseum held about 45,000 spectators. 

The games are by no means without precedent in earlier Roman history. 
Though bigger and better after Augustus, they go back to republican days, 
before Rome was a world power. The first triple duel among gladiators on 
record was in 264 B.C.; there had been single fights earlier. The fights do seem 
to go with the Roman character or disposition. Another modern notion about 
the games is wrong: the crowds were by no means limited to the lower classes. 
Many of the emperors enjoyed the games; others came even if they did not 
enjoy them, because they were part of the ceremonial and ritual that symbol- 
ized the Empire. The people expected to see their rulers do their public duty 
by presiding at the arena. Many individuals among the upper classes clearly 
delighted in the games, followed the gladiators and the charioteers in public 
eye, mixed with them socially, kept their own "stables," human as well as 
animal, behaved, in short, about mass sports as the nonintellectuals of West- 


The Greco-Roman World 

ern aristocracies generally do when civilization deprives them of the relaxa- 
tion of serious fighting. The world of the arena and the race course was truly 
a world of consuming interest for all sorts of Romans. There are all the signs 
one would expect to find in mass spectator-sport statistics of records, wor- 
ship of the successful athletes, wide publicity. At Pompeii some of the in- 
formal transcriptions found scribbled in public places tell us the Thracian 
Celadus, probably a gladiator, was a "man the girls yearned for"; an inscrip- 
tion tells us that Crescens, a Moor, a Blue charioteer, drove a four-in-hand 
at the age of thirteen, and between A.D. 115 and 124 ran 686 races, getting 
first prize forty-seven times, second, 130 times, and third,! 1 1 times, winning, 
in all, 1,588,346 sesterces. 33 Martial wrote, perhaps not altogether without 
the intellectual's envy of the attention the athlete gets, an epitaph for Scorpus, 
dying young: 

I am that Scorpus, glory of the shouting circus, thy applauded one, Rome, and 
brief delight; whom a jealous fate cut off at thrice nine years, believing, having 
counted my victories, that I was already an old man. 34 

Juvenal says in clear indignation that a successful jockey of the Red gets 
a hundred times what an advocate gets. 35 

The Roman stage furnishes another example of a decline in taste, a 
vulgarization as its audience gets increasingly unable to discriminate between 
the amusing and the titillating. Terence and Plautus wrote plays in imitation 
of Menander and other Greek playwrights of the New Comedy, plays in which 
the wit is partly, at least, a matter for the mind. By imperial times what takes 
place on the Roman stage is hardly more than stylized exhibition of mimes, 
often very obscene, and clearly far from subtle in content, though the art of 
the individual actor was very highly developed. The people of the stage, like 
those of the arena and the circus, were interesting and enviable persons in the 
eyes of the urban masses and of many of their patrician hangers-on, but they 
were definitely not respectable. Indeed, the moral disrepute of the actor, the 
professional athlete, the denizen of the underworld of amusement is first clear 
in the West in this Greco-Roman society. We Westerners admire, envy, and 
scorn those who amuse us, as we admire and scorn our best friend, the dog. 
This worldly underworld of the Romans is a vast Bohemia, as yet without 
romantic overtones. 

33 L. Friedlander, Roman Life and Manners, Vol. IT, pp. 51, 23. 

34 Martial, Book X, no. 53, 

35 Juvenal, Satire VH, lines 112-114. 


A History of Western Morals 

Yet, save from the Christians, there is not much vigorous condemnation 
of the games. There is, though, not much defense of them either. Pliny the 
Younger has a famous passage in his panegyric of Trajan in praise of the 
contempt for death the spectacles teach; but the rhetoric of the piece makes 
it hard to guess whether Pliny really thought the games toughened the spec- 
tators up in good Hemingway style. 36 But for the most part what strikes one 
is the naturalness with which the games were taken. Symmachus, a late fourth- 
century pagan whose contrived letters seem by no means those of a harsh 
person, reports the suicide of some Saxons he was having groomed to fight 
in the arena; he clearly is very sorry for himself, but not at all for the Saxons. 37 

The Stoics included the mob in that world they sought to rise above. They 
were no crusaders; they were willing to leave the populace to its own bad 
ways. The rulers knew they had to provide bread and the circuses, and that the 
circuses were more necessary than bread. Trajan, writes the historian Pronto, 
knew that 

the goodness of government is shown both in its earnest aspects and its amuse- 
ments; and that while neglect of serious business was harmful, neglect of amuse- 
ments caused discontent; even distributions of money were less desired than 
games; further, largesse of corn and money pacified only a few or even individuals 
only, but games the whole people. 38 

The world of the Roman Empire was a varied, lively, interesting world, 
not very sensitive, not at all simple, from which the anecdotist can draw on 
a vast range of human conduct. Aulus Gellius, the source for the well-known 
tale of Androcles and the lion, finishes his story with a touch usually omitted 
in the retelling: Androcles, manumitted after the touching episode in the 
arena, went the rounds of the taverns leading his lion by a leash; the cus- 
tomers threw money to Androcles, sprinkled the lion with flowers. 39 St. 

3 Pliny, Panegyricus Trajano, Chap. XXXm. "You [Trajan] provided a spectacle, not 

of the sort that softens and weakens the spirit of men, but that serves to harden men 

to bear noble wounds and be contemptuous of death." That pulchra vulnera is quite 

untranslatable, but very much part of the agon of a noble warrior class. It just does 

not go with the Roman games of the Empire, where the wounds must have been most 


37 Epistolae, Book II, 46, quoted in L. Friedlander, Roman Life and Manners, Vol. 

H, p. 55. 

3S Fronto, Preamble to History, quoted and translated in L. Friedlander, Roman Life 

and Manner s t Vol. II, p. 3. See the Loeb Classical Library edition of the fragments of 

Fronto, trans, by C. R. Haines, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1955, 

Vol. H, p. 217. 

39 Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, trans, by J. C. Rolfe, London, Heinemann, 1927, in Loeb 

Classical Library, Book V, 14, Vol. I, p. 427. 


The Greco-Roman World 

Augustine reports, on the authority of Seneca, that women used to sit on th 
Capitoline by the temple of Jupiter, believing, probably on the strength o 
dreams, that they were beloved of the god. 40 Suetonius notes that each spring 
after the death of Nero, flowers were laid by an unknown hand on his grave 
This is the charisma exercised by the captivatingly wicked; one suppose 
that it is an ever-present element in Western society, but clearly it is usu 
ally repressed in a society of simple ways or at least, in such societies 
the wicked are Robin Hoods, not Neros or Capones. 41 

In Rome a good many thousands of the urban proletariat did live off th< 
state dole. They needed the circuses, if only to make their idleness bearable 
and they seem to have got something like one day in three as public holidays 
They certainly did not make a sober, steady, soldierly people; they were no 
virtuous; but they could hardly afford the expensive vices of their betters 
Theirs was no doubt the short and simple fornication of the poor, the vicarioui 
satisfactions of the arena, the stage, the spectacle of the wickedness of thei 
rulers, the melodrama of high imperial politics. The masses of the great citie; 
of the East, Antioch, Alexandria, and the rest, were probably less dependen 
on state handouts, but clearly were poor, crowded, restless, and aware o 
their plight. Theirs is the strange world of superstitition, vagabondage, big 
city fashionable alertness, and moral laxness we begin to get glimpses of ii 
Hellenistic times, and which is nicely reflected in one of the few almost 
novels we have from antiquity, the Golden Ass of Apuleius, who flourishec 
under the Antonines. 

And always there was slavery, an institution to which even the triumphan 
Christianity of the fourth century was to adapt itself. Slavery in the Greco- 
Roman world was not by any means throughout a harsh and thorough sub- 
jection of the slave. One can even make a good case for the assertion that or 
the whole the Greco-Roman was one of the milder forms of slavery. Rank- 
and-file prisoners of war, often forced to fight against hopeless odds in the 
arena, were victims of the violence normal to the West throughout most of ifc 
history. Galley slaves had an especially grueling task. Apuleius has a grue- 

40 St. Augustine, City of God, Book VI, Chap. 10. "But some sit there that think Jov< 
is in love with them: never respecting Juno's poetically supposed terrible aspect.** 

41 Suetonius, Nero, 57, quoted in Dill, Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius 
p. 16. Suetonius says, "Yet there were some who for a long time decorated his tomt 
with spring and summer flowers. . . ." Some gangsters do have their faithful afte] 
death. In fact, I think I perhaps have underestimated hi the text the strength through 
out Western moral history of a folk worship of the exciting, picturesque, romanticallj 
wicked. Not only in the United States of the 1950's have the Becks and the Hoffas beer 
heroes to their followers. 


A History of Western Morals 

some passage about some unfortunate slaves. 42 And W. E. H. Lecky writes 

numerous acts of the most odious barbarity were committed. The well-known 
anecdotes of Flaminius ordering a slave to be killed to gratify, by the spectacle, the 
curiosity of a guest; of Vedius Pollio feeding his fish on the flesh of slaves; and of 
Augustus sentencing a slave, who had killed and eaten a favorite quail, to cruci- 
fixion, are the extreme examples that are recorded. . . . Ovid and Juvenal de- 
scribe the fierce Roman ladies tearing their servants' faces, and thrusting the long 
pins of their brooches into their flesh. 43 

Yet much can be set against this black picture. The inscriptions show 
many instances of manumitted slaves who did well in craft or small business, 
and left enough to get proper funeral inscriptions. Freedmen rose high in 
the service of the emperors scandalously high in the opinion of the old 
Romans. The career open to talents was not shut to the capable slave, for 
whom his handicap could sometimes act as a stimulus in competition. No 
doubt the slaves who did the work of the great estates, which, especially in 
Italy, but to a degree elsewhere, took the place of the yeoman farms of the 
early Republic, had the lot usual with plantation slaves. The bright ones 
might manage to get into the household of the master, and eventually into 
the city and on the road to manumission. The masses of the slaves were at 
least spared the worst by increasingly great legal protection from bad mas- 
ters, and by the economic good sense of the ordinary master. Varro, a conr 
temporary of Cicero, who wrote on agriculture, has much to say on the 
treatment of slaves. He sounds very sensible, almost as if he had studied 
nineteenth-century economic writings. He counsels humane treatment on 
prudential grounds, and advises special concern to encourage efficient fore- 
men, themselves slaves, by "incentive pay," possibility of eventual freedom, 
and so on. 44 

On slavery as an institution, as I have noted briefly above, the fashionable 
rationalist philosophy was driven to the conclusion that if the mind finds men 
equal, it can hardly find slavery natural. Cicero, Seneca, and many others 
register their disapproval; Epictetus, himself a slave, sounds more sincere: 

What you avoid suffering yourself, seek not to impose on others. You avoid 

42 Apuleius, The Golden Ass, DC, 12. 

43 History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, Vol. I, pp. 302-303. 

44 Varro, Rerum Rusticarum, Vol. I, p. 17. Lewis and Reinhold, Roman Civilisation, 
Vol. I, pp. 446-448. On legal protection, Westermarck, Origin and Development of 
the Moral Ideas, Vol. I, pp. 691-692, gives many examples. 


The Greco-Roman World 

slavery, for instance; take care not to enslave. For if you can bear to exact slavery 
from others, you appear to have been first yourself a slave. 45 

But there is no record of a Roman Society for the Abolition of Slavery. Of 
course, in the bureaucratic Empire there was no place for what we call pres- 
sure groups. Still, the protests of the literary and the philosophic against 
slavery seem more than usually remote from the habits and conduct of 
ordinary men. We must conclude that slavery was an accepted part of this 
great society, exhibiting the widest range from cruelty to gentleness, from 
economic exploitation to legal moderation, and from melodramatic gestures 
of psychopathic origin to the daily routines of convenience. We may perhaps 
go a bit further, and conclude that the kind of anecdote Lecky has culled from 
the sources is no sounder social and moral history than any other case history 
of the monstrous, the psychopathic. 

One final topic: it is possible for the later Empire to list for the first time 
some "intellectuals" among the many, if not quite among the masses. At least, 
we know from our sources that there was a relatively large public for whom, 
in the absence of a printing press and other marvels of modern mass com- 
munication, there existed professional lecturers, schools at which tuition was 
paid, and which indulged in a certain amount of what we call adult education 
in short, a public with leisure enough to talk about "ideas." This public 
was served by a motley group of rhetoricians and "philosophers" who have 
had a thoroughly bad press. Some of them do smell of the ancient equivalent 
of Grub Street, if not of still lower reaches of ill-paid masters of the word. 
Lucian, who at one time in his life was perhaps one of these, has left some 
very stinging satire on them. They numbered charlatans, poseurs, hawkers of 
all sorts of salvation. They deliberately made themselves up as philosophers. 
Epictetus, a true blue himself, wrote indignantly of these pretenders: 

When people see a man with long hair and a coarse cloak behaving in an un- 
seemingly manner, they shout, 'Look at the philosopher': whereas his behavior 
should rather convince them that he is no philosopher. 46 

Even when this intellectual life was not downright charlatanry, it was pitched 
at a somewhat low level of casuistry. Here is a topic on which the young 
rhetoricians exercised themselves: 

45 Epictetus, Moral Discourses, trans, by Elizabeth Carter, London, Dent, 1910, Frag- 
ment 38. 

46 IV, 8, 4, quoted in L. Friedlander, Roman Life and Manners, Vol. HI, p. 237. 
Friedlander's Chapter in of this volume on "Philosophy as a Moral Education** 
gleans many interesting details from the sources. 


A History of Western Morals 

In this case the law is that if a woman has been seduced she can choose either 
to have her seducer condemned to death or marry him without bringing him any 

A man violates two women on the same night. One asks for him to be put to 
death, the other chooses to marry him. 47 

Something has certainly happened to "philosophy" since the pre-Socratics! 

I have hitherto restrained myself from making the obvious comparisons. When 
the million and more sesterces of the charioteer Crescens's prize money came 
up, I said nothing of Eddie Arcaro; nor did I suggest that Celadus, the 
suspirum et decus puellarum of the Pompeian graffiti had anticipated Elvis 
Presley by two thousand years. But we cannot here sensibly dodge the much- 
discussed topic: Are we now somewhere in our own modern Western version 
of the Greco-Roman world? From Spengler through to Toynbee and the latest 
appeal to history as a clue to the future, our time has seen dozens of versions 
of the parallel between the Greco-Roman world and our own. A history of 
morals in the West can by no means be extended into an attempt to examine 
all sides of this problem; but neither can such a history wholly avoid con- 
sidering this problem, if only because for the moral temper of our own age 
this appeal to history, or to historicism, is most important. 

Toynbee and his fellows have made the cyclical form almost as much the 
accepted form of our thinking on these matters as unilinear evolution was for 
our grandfathers. It is difficult today to avoid thinking of all sorts of human 
group activities as subject to ups and downs, growth, decay, and death, spring, 
summer, fall, winter, and other such conceptual schemes or figures of speech. 
From business firms through sports clubs to nations and civilizations, we have 
before us what we must thinlc of as the fact of cyclical processes. We under- 
stand thoroughly none of them, can control fully none of them, not even the 
business cycle. It is probably true that the wider the net of human activity 
we gather together to study as a cycle, the less accurately we can analyze 
it. The Spenglerian civilization, the Toynbean society, are so great, so compli- 
cated, so much a series of cycles within cycles within cycles, that we cannot 
possibly use them to place our own society in a single position analogous to 
these. We cannot say the West is now just where the Greco-Roman society 
was in such and such a year, or century. 

Any attempt to analyze the varied human activities from which the master 
47 Seneca, Controversiae, I, 2, quoted in H. I. Marrou, Education in Antiquity, p. 287. 


The Greco-Roman World 

cycle of the whole society is usually constructed shows at once that we can- 
not really fit the parts together. If one takes the relations among the independ- 
ent states making up a given society international politics one can see 
with Toynbee a certain parallel between our day and the Greco-Roman day 
of about 250 B.C. The superpowers Rome and Carthage become the super- 
powers U.S. A. and U.S.S.R.; one or the other will give the "knockout blow" 
and there will be a new universal state, American- or Russian-inspired. In- 
deed, Mr. Amaury de Riencourt has already decided that the Americans are 
the Romans of the modern world. If one takes morals in the vulgar modern 
sense, with emphasis on luxury, "sensate" self-indulgence, sophistication at 
the top, and some effort at the bottom to keep up with the top, in short, if one 
is Mr. Sorokin, then we now appear to be, not in 250 B.C., but three hundred 
years later, along with the contemporaries of Martial and Juvenal, along with 
all the shocking conduct we have just above briefly and decently reviewed. If 
one takes over-all economic productivity, the application of any cyclical 
theory is impossible, because so far there has been no secular trend in modern 
Western society, since the end of the Middle Ages at least, save upward. The 
horrors of twentieth-century destructiveness have not, statistically speaking, 
destroyed; two world wars and a great depression have left the West richer 
in things of this world than it has ever been. 

If we cannot then apply cyclical theories to our own society with diag- 
nostic success, can we, perhaps, consider the whole development of the Med- 
iterranean world in "classical" antiquity as a kind of case history? If we take 
"case history" seriously, as at least an effective working tool of the sort the 
clinician in medicine uses, clearly the answer is no. The clinician who con- 
cluded anything at all from one case history would be thought ill of by his 
colleagues. Even if with Toynbee and others we judge that history gives us 
something to work with for maybe a dozen or so civilized societies, these are 
few indeed; and, more important, they are perhaps so different as to be useless 
for the diagnostician, for we may be comparing the incomparable, and our 
actual knowledge of their histories is often slight. We do know the "classical 
world" quite well, too well, if we are sensible, to suppose that what has hap- 
pened there is going to happen here. All that we can do with the history of the 
Greco-Roman world is what we can always do with any history treat it as 
a record of human experience which we can add with due caution to what 
we know of our own times. We can draw all sorts of generalizations from that 
sort of experience, but no master generalization about man's fate, human 
destiny, "whither mankind?" 


A History of Western Morals 

There remains, however, the old chestnut about the causes of the fall 
of the Roman Empire. Surely the historian of morals cannot decently side-step 
that question, though he cannot pretend to answer it completely. He will not 
in mid-twentieth century go along with any variants of naive materialistic 
determination which rule out morals from the variables to be considered. The 
fall of Rome was not simply a moral fall, but it was in part a moral fall. One 
cannot even say that, given the conduct our sources report for these centuries, 
a society in which men and women conducted themselves as did the Greco- 
Romans was corrupt, decadent, bound to collapse under attack from the out- 
side if not under revolt from the inside. One can make the rough generaliza- 
tion that at least in the ruling classes and its hangers-on the kind of conduct 
that we most readily label "immoral" the vices of self-indulgence and dis- 
play tend to diminish somewhat after what was perhaps their peak early in 
imperial times. This is by no means a sure generalization. It may be that our 
sources for later periods lack the moral intensity of a Tacitus. The later 
historian Ammianus Marcellinus has two good passages of moralistic attack 
on the weaknesses of the upper classes, but they are not very vehement or very 
extensive, and are perhaps no more than the conventional scornful feelings of 
the soldier toward the rulers back home. The society reflected in the Saturnalia 
of Macrobius is, as Samuel Dill points out, simpler than the luxurious one of 
old, with no fantastic foods, no dancing girls, no extravagant display. 48 

The tough-minded may infer that the comparative poverty of the last 
years of the Empire explains this comparative chastity and decency; the ten- 
der-minded will remind us that Christianity ought to have had some effect on 
the conduct of those who espoused it. Certainly the Christian writers found 
no improvement in the morals of the many. Salvianus of fifth-century Aqui- 
taine found his fellows living in one vast whore house, found no one chaste 
except, one hopes, himself. 49 Even after the gladiatorial games were finally 
suppressed early in the fifth century, the mimes continued to carry on with 
the usual indecencies, acting out Leda's loves, and the like. So reports Si- 
donius, a provincial of Gaul, and thus an early Frenchman, perhaps already 
saddled with the French national obligation to note these matters saltily. 50 

Still, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the moral tone of life at 
Rome itself, and to a degree throughout the Empire, was not one in keeping 

4 8 Ammianus Marcellinus, XIV, 6 and XXVIII, 4; Dill, Roman Society in the Last 
Century of the Western Empire, p. 161. 

49 Dill, op. cit., pp. 140-141, quoting Salvianus, On God's Governance, Book VII, 16. 

50 Carmina, Book XXffl, 286-288, quoted in Dill, op. cit., p. 56. 


The Greco-Roman World 

with the maintenance of a state and a society able to stand off its enemies. This 
is surely true if one is concerned with the civic virtues, those of the citizen- 
soldier, the citizen participant in community political life. Even in the upper 
classes, there was a sharp division between the workers in war and administra- 
tion, the admirable Stoic gentlemen who manned the Empire, and the corrupt 
aristocracy of Rome and high politics. There was the horde of Romans on 
the dole, a people no longer good for war or peace. There was the slave prole- 
tariat, and the many tribes and peoples of this huge political entity, none of 
them really sharing in the common thing of the Empire. The commonplace is 
unavoidable; even with the final spread of Roman citizenship in a legal sense 
throughout the Empire (slaves were never, of course, full citizens), even with 
the development of emperor worship as some kind of symbolism to remind 
ordinary people that there was an Empire, this huge state never really was 
more than a congeries held together by its armies and its bureaucrats, and by 
sheer habit. 

I do not wish to be understood as maintaining that the civic virtues at 
their best in fact let alone at their best in words, as in worship of Swiss can- 
tons or New England town meetings are an essential to a going state. I mean 
merely that with all the variables allowed for, including by all means the eco- 
nomic weaknesses of the later Empire, the "lack of Romans," the taxing away 
of the responsible middle class of curiales, even, perhaps, the malaria and the 
sunspots, all the long, long list of "causes" of the fall, a moral weakness, not 
so much a matter of the picturesque vices as one of softness, lack of civic 
responsibility, lack of drive toward a shared earthly betterment of material 
conditions, perhaps even, toward the end, a vague feeling of despair, must be 
on the list. 

Softness? Despair? Is this the old tale of Gibbon once more? Am I about 
to list Christianity as at least partly responsible for the fall of the earthly Ro- 
man Empire? I am indeed, though not in a spirit of gloating irony. It may well 
be I think it is true that no men and no institutions we can realistically 
imagine in a restrained exercise of history-in-the-conditional could have held 
the congeries of the Roman Empire together. Let us grant Toynbee that the 
Empire was in a sense born dead. Still, it would also seem true that the kind 
of virtues that are indispensable to an imperial ruling elite were not those of 
early Christianity, and that for the many what early Christianity brought was 
by no means a set of civic virtues they had previously lacked. We must turn 
now to the moral implications of the Judaeo-Christian tradition as it grew in 
the Greco-Roman world and embodied itself in the Roman Catholic Church. 


The Beginnings of the Judaea-Christian Tradition 

THE TAXONOMY to say nothing of the genetics of morals is a difficult busi- 
ness. What I have in this chapter heading called the "Judaeo-Christian" tra- 
dition is perhaps better called, in spite of the unwieldiness of the phrase, the 
"Judaeo-Helleno-Romano-Christian" tradition. Certainly as to ethical con- 
cepts there can be no doubt that as early as St. Paul himself Greek ways of 
thinking and feeling, with difficulty, if at all, to be discerned in previous Jewish 
culture, come into Christian thought and feeling. Nothing is easier than to 
draw from the works of Greco-Roman writers from Plato on expressions of 
ideas that seem clearly Christian. I shall shortly give a brief sample of this 
familiar procedure of finding classic Greece in Christianity. But in the balance 
it still looks as if so much of what made Christianity different from Stoicism, 
or Neoplatonism, or any of the actual cults of the Empire, those of Mithra or 
of Isis, for example, does come from the Jews that the term "Judaeo- 
Christian" is justifiable. Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Jesus must, even to the 
natural historian of morals and most certainly to the Christian believer 
mean more than Plato, Zeao, Marcus Aurelius, Plotinus, and all the rest of the 
pagans put together. 

From the disasters that overcame the Jewish independent polity and cul- 
minated in the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity at the beginning 
of the sixth century B.C., the intellectual leaders of the Jewish people were 
stirred to a heart searching out of which came the prophetic books of the Old 
Testament, and what looks like a revolutionary shift of Jewish theology into 
a universalistic monotheism, and into much else new. These results of loss of 


The Beginnings of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition 

political independence are in themselves remarkable. Carthage was destroyed 
and rebuilt eventually with no such results. The loss of independence by 
the Greek city-states, if more gradual and unaccompanied, as a rule, by 
razing of temples and deportations of intellectuals, was still a real loss, and 
one that produced no moral renewal. From the point of view of an engaged 
intellectual, the blows that have fallen on France in the twentieth century are 
certainly heavy, and they have in the existentialist movement produced some- 
thing in high culture; but though some of our French existentialists sound at 
moments like Jeremiah at his worst, the comparison is for the natural historian 
of morals pretty silly. Not even a relatively intense modern nationalism of the 
sort prevalent in France seems to produce the reaction to defeat produced in 
Jewish nationalism by the downfall of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. 

The kind of secular "nationalism" we can understand is clearly not quite 
what filled Jewish heads and hearts. The Jews by the sixth century B.C. had 
been molded into a community of extraordinarily disciplined cohesion. They 
were already a, but not yet the, Chosen People. Jehovah had laid down the 
Law for them: the Jew who followed the Law could be certain, morally cer- 
tain, that Jehovah would take care of him. We are here at a most delicate 
point. Christian terms like "salvation," "grace," and even "heaven" are not 
right here; and thougji there is something shocking in the suggestion that the 
Jew who followed the Law was "well-adjusted," free from anxiety, full of ego 
satisfaction, yet if these phrases of our time are taken freely and not too 
naively, they may be useful in understanding why the fall of Jerusalem upset 
so much. 

Disaster shook this certainty, but it did not shake the moral and intellec- 
tual habits on which the certainty was founded. Above all, it did not lead the 
Jews to doubt Jehovah, and certainly not, in the pagan Greek manner, to curse 
hiTn for letting them down. 

Thou, O Lord, abidest for ever; 

Thy throne is from generation to generation. 

Wherefore dost thou forget us for ever, 

And forsake us so long time? 

Turn thou us unto thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned; 

Renew our days as of old. 

But thou has utterly rejected us, 

Thou art very wroth against us. 1 

The prophets were sure that it was the Jews who had let Jehovah down. 

1 Lamentations 5:19-22. 


A History of Western Morals 

They were articulate, and managed to record a great number and variety of 
sins and backslidings. Some are the kind of sin we have noted before whor- 
ing after strange gods, lapses in following the Law but many are lapses in 
conduct of the sort Western tradition generally recognizes as immoral. The 
prophets do write in a figurative and lofty style of a kind likely to throw off 
the modern realist; but it seems possible that often when they talk of whoring 
they mean it unfiguratively. Here, at any rate, is a sampling from Jeremiah: 

Why then is this people of Jerusalem slidden back by a perpetual backsliding? they 
hold fast deceit, they refuse to return. I hearkened and heard, but they spake not 
aright: no man repenteth him of his wickedness, saying, What have I done? every 
one turned to his course, as a horse that rusheth headlong hi battle. Yea, the stork 
in the heaven knoweth her appointed times; and the turtle and the swallow and 
the crane observe the time of their coming; but my people know not the judgment 
of the Lord. How do ye say, We are wise, and the law of the Lord is with us? 
But, behold, the false pen of the scribes hath wrought falsely. The wise men are 
ashamed, they are dismayed and taken: lo, they have rejected the word of the 
Lord; and what manner of wisdom is in them? Therefore will I give their wives 
unto others, and their fields to them that shall inherit them: for every one from 
the least even unto the greatest is given to covetousness, from the prophet even 
unto the priest every one dealeth falsely. And they have healed the hurt of the 
daughter of my people lightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace. 
Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? nay, they were not 
at all ashamed, neither could they blush: therefore shall they fall among them 
that fall: in the time of their visitation they shall be cast down. 2 

The logic would be neat indeed: Jehovah is punishing the Jews, not be- 
cause they transgressed the Law as of old understood, but because their very 
concept of Jehovah and the Law as theirs and theirs alone was a sin against 
the one true universal God of all men. I do not think that even Isaiah thought 
explicitly in this way there are those who hold that he was mainly concerned 
with international politics, being pro-Assyrian and anti-Egyptian and yet 
somehow he did make the leap from the tribal to the universal. 

Ye are my witnesses, saith the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen: that ye 
may know and believe me, and understand that I am he; before me there was no 
God formed, neither shall there be after me. I, even I, am the Lord; and beside 
me there is no saviour. 3 

2 Jeremiah 8:5-12. The first few chapters of Jeremiah are a good specimen of pro- 
phetic moral writing, less lofty than Isaiah, but still hardly earth-bound. Eric Hoffer 
has dared suggest that the prophets were the first revolutionary intellectuals. The new 
labor-saving device of the alphabet, he argues, produced a new class of intellectuals who 
could not find employment, and who were thus "alienated" and turned to attack on, 
not support of, existing ways. Pacific Spectator, Vol. X (1956), p. 7. 

3 Isaiah 43: 10-11. 


The Beginnings of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition 

Here, however, the next turn is clear. This one universal God has chosen 
the Jews in a different sense from the old way of Jehovah, chosen them to 
lead the other peoples to Him. 

For Zion's sake will I not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, 
until her righteousness go forth as brightness, and her salvation as a lamp that 
burneth. And the nations shall see thy righteousness, and all kings thy glory: and 
thou shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord shall name. Thou 
shalt also be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the 
hand of thy God. Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken; neither shall thy land 
any more be termed Desolate: 4 

There is no use insisting on the obvious: we are not here in the midst of 
the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and its cosmopolitan rationalist theory. 
Isaiah's God was, at least during the process of adjustment after this victory, 
going to behave toward these now momentarily triumphant gentiles much the 
way jealous old Jehovah behaved toward backsliders. 

And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers: 
they shall bow down to thee with their faces to the earth, and lick the dust of thy 
feet; and thou shalt know that I am the Lord, and they that wait for me shall not 
be ashamed. Shall the prey be taken from the mighty, or the lawful captives be 
delivered? But thus saith the Lord, Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken 
away, and the prey of the terrible shall be delivered: for I will contend with him 
that contendeth with thee, and I will save thy children. And I will feed them that 
oppress thee with their own flesh; and they shall be drunken with their own blood, 
as with sweet wine: and all flesh shall know that I the Lord am thy saviour, and 
thy redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob. 5 

Here, then, are already the broad foundation lines of the Christian inter- 
pretation of man's fate: one universal righteous God, sinful and disobedient 
men who transgress God's ways, God's plan to set up a minority as an ex- 
ample of men who do not so transgress, and who will be rewarded for setting 
this example, not only by winning the world, but by winning eternal salvation 
in the next world. I have deliberately and I dare say successfully put this last 
flatly and with no spark. It was, as we all know, put in splendid language 
that did justify God's ways to man. Cherished and developed in the Jewish 
communities within the world of Greco-Roman culture we have just studied, 
given added intensity by the concept of a single earthly leader, the Messiah, 
who should do what the prophets had said would be done, the Word seems 
already clear: it is a universalist high ethical monotheism. 

4 Isaiah 62- 1-4 

5 Isaiah 49:23-26. 


A History of Western Morals 

The successors of the Babylonian exiles did come back to Jerusalem. 
David and Solomon had no heirs, but Jewry was not yet wholly dispersed. 
Babylonian gave way to Persian hegemony, Persian to Greek, Greek to 
Roman, but the Jews lived on in Palestine, a Palestine increasingly made part 
of this Levantine One World of trade, war, politics, increasingly subject to 
inflow and outflow of men and ideas. The Jews responded variously. A few 
of the ruling classes accepted assimilation to Greek and later Roman ways. 
The best known of these is the Herod who ruled at the time of the birth of 
Christ, a kinglet who formed part of the elaborate chain of Roman control of 
the East. Jews had already begun, not the forced later migration known as 
the Diaspora, but individual migration to the great cities of the Empire, still 
chiefly in the East. Of these, many learned, as did Saul of Tarsus, a great deal 
of Greece and Greek ways, without ceasing to think of themselves as Jews, 
and without ceasing to follow the Law. At the opposite extreme there were 
groups that lived apart in intensified and perhaps quite altered Jewishness. 
The recent discovery of the so-called Dead Sea scrolls a discovery that by 
the wide interest it has aroused throughout the West at least casts some doubt 
as to the worrier's complaint that we have all quite forgotten the Bible has 
focused attention on the Essenes. These seem to have been communists who 
lived together in brotherly sharing and simplicity in quiet places, rejecting 
the worldly ways of the Greco-Roman Levant, yet contemplating a better 
world that might yet be the world of the prophets. From these and other 
"advanced" groups, perhaps through Persian and Hindu influences that they 
would for the most part have denied indignantly, there came into Jewish 
religious life a much more strongly emphasized concept of an afterlife, of 
sin, repentance, and cleansing. There came, also, a heightening, or at least a 
broadening into wider circles of the Jewish people, of the prophets' concep- 
tion of a Saviour, a Messiah (the anointed one, in Greek, Christos), a 
conception that still arouses scholarly debate over its origins, development, 
and degree of acceptance among the Jews before the birth of Christ. 

There were also people whose place and reputation in Jewish history is 
very different from the place they occupy in our New Testament. The Phari- 
sees carry through Western history a quite undeserved reputation for wicked- 
ness. They were old-fashioned religious conservatives, upholders of the de- 
cencies of the Law, distrustful of innovation and of what the eighteenth 
century called "enthusiasm" in religion, but surely not more wicked, not more 
insensitive, not even more self-satisfied than such folk (who come out badly 
in the history of ideas in the West) usually are. They were probably no more 


The Beginnings of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition 

hypocrites than are any other high-minded routine conservatives. Jesus 
shocked their sense of decency, and, perhaps even more important, seemed 
to them by his conduct to be making for Roman armed intervention. Let us 
note that heroism in a satellite nation can have consequences most unpleasant 
for the many who are not heroes. 


There were, then, Jewish beliefs, attitudes, and experiences which anticipate, 
make possible, prepare the way for, Christianity. The Greco-Roman world, 
too, found much of Christianity familiar. Something like monotheism was 
well established, at least, quite well known, among the educated classes, in 
both East and West. It was indeed a deistic or pantheistic, and not very 
fervent, belief in one God, and it was hardly worship merely poetry and 
philosophy. Lucan has Cato the Stoic say: 

All that we see is God; every motion we make is God also. Men who doubt and 
are ever uncertain of future events let them cry out for prophets: I draw my 
assurance from no oracle but the sureness of death. The timid and the brave must 
fall alike; the god has said this, and it is enough. 6 

Still, such beliefs are a long way from pagan polytheism. Even closer 
parallels with Christian ethics can be found. The motto of Epictetus, "Suffer 
and renounce," is Stoic, but also Christian. Nietzsche, at least, might find 
what he thought the perverse Christian pride of the humble in Epictetus's 
"How do I treat those whom you admire and honor? Is it not like slaves? Do 
not all, when they see me, think they see their lord and king?" 7 Long ago 
Plato had Socrates say in the Crito that "we ought not to retaliate or render 
evil for evil to anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him." It is 
true that he went on to add, "this opinion has never been held, and never 
will be held, by any considerable number of persons." Is this last, too, per- 
haps not wholly incompatible with the facts of Christian life? 8 

Such parallels, it must be insisted, are abundant. Their study is often 
interesting and even useful, but a listing of them is no more an explanation of 
Christianity than a listing of Shakespeare's sources is an explanation of 
Shakespeare. We cannot here go into the many problems of early church his- 

6 Lucan, The Civil War, trans, by J. D. Duff, London, Heinemann, 1928, Loeb Classi- 
cal Library, Vol. IX, p. 580. 

7 Epictetus, Discourses, iii. 22. Quoted in L. Friedlander, Roman Life and Manners 
under the Early Empire, Vol. m, pp 272-273. 
Crito, 49, The Dialogues of Plato, trans, by B. Jowett, New York, Macmillan, 1892, 

VOL n. 


A History of Western Morals 

tory, the sources of Christian theology and ritual, and much else essential to 
the study of Christianity. 9 From the point of view of the outsider, Christianity 
is in all its aspects, from the purely theological through the ethical to the 
details of liturgy and church government, a syncretic faith; the elements are 
all there, ready to hand. But the putting together was a remarkable achieve- 
ment in making something new. 

On what the triumph of Christianity meant for the moral life of the West, 
there has, at least since with the Renaissance anti-Christian sentiments could 
come out in the open, been warm debate. We may simplify a bit, and distin- 
guish two kinds of attack on Christian moral achievement. The first, typically 
that of modern high-minded rationalism of the Enlightenment, takes the 
position that, though most or even all of Christian ethics is good, Christianity 
has failed dismally to make them prevail in the real world, largely because of 
its wicked priesthood, who developed and spread its absurd theology. The 
second, that represented, but by no means exhausted, by Nietzsche, takes the 
position that Christian ethical principles are in themselves bad low and 
ignoble but seem, unfortunately, to have been sufficiently successful to pre- 
vent the prevailing of the true good. We shall have to return to both these 
positions in later chapters, for they form an important part of Western moral 
history. Here we need but note them briefly. 

The late J. M. Robertson, a kindly and fervent freethinker, will do well 
to point up the first attitude. 10 Robertson works hard to show that established 
Christianity by no means made the morals of the Roman Empire any better 
than they had been under the pagans, indeed, made some human conduct 
worse. Slavery was not abolished; what there was of improvement in the 
workings of the institution was due to pagan philosophers and pagan lawyers. 
The Christians did not stop the gladiatorial games, in spite of the noise the 
Fathers made about them; the games withered on the vine as the economy of 
the Empire declined to the point where they could not be supported. In an 

9 1 have dealt summarily with some of these matters in Chapter V of my Ideas and 
Men (New York, Prentice-Hall, 1950), and have made reading suggestions on p. 567 
of that book. See also M. Hadas, "Plato in Hellenistic Fusion," Journal of the His- 
tory of Ideas, Vol. XIX, January 1958, p. 3. 

10 "Freethinker" is not the perfect word, but apparently there is no single word to 
gather together the materialists, positivists, rationalists, deists, "humanists," ethical 
culturalists, Unitarians, agnostics, believers in natural science as a religion, anticlericals, 
Marxists, and the rest. You may say that these all stand for different beliefs; yet the 
variations among them are hardly greater than among Christians who have broken with 
Rome, and for these we have an accepted blanket word: "Protestant." I propose gener- 
ally throughout this book to use for these groups from eighteenth-century deists to 
twentieth-century Marxist-Leninists the blanket word "Enlightened," duly capitalized. 


The Beginnings of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition 

analogous way, slavery itself declined in the Middle Ages not because of 
Christian doctrine. Sex morals were not improved. The insanities of early 
monasticism actually meant worse, more perverse, sexual conduct. This all 
leads up to the familiar attack by Gibbon: Christian contempt for this world 
led to the disastrous failure of civic morality and of military capacity, and to 
the fall of the Empire. 11 

Those who claim to reject Christian ethics entirely are wilder men. Some, 
indeed, are no more than admirers of what they think those admirable Greeks 
of the fifth century B.C. were like; in the opinion of these classical humanists 
from the Renaissance on, Christianity destroyed the ideals and the practice 
of the beautiful-and-good. But more recent attackers go far beyond this, and 
find that Christian ethics is the prevailing of the weak over the strong, a flying 
in the face of Darwin, "slave morality," an exaltation of Mediterranean vices 
above Nordic virtues, and more, too much more, to the same effect. 

It is hard for anyone in the West, Christian, anti-Christian, or, if such 
there be, skeptic, to write about Christian morals without being influenced at 
all by the long controversies that have been the life of Christianity. I shall do 
my best, with a few further words of warning. First, the inevitable problem 
of effective generalization from varied concrete instances comes up sharply in 
any use of the word "Christianity." Since for centuries all Westerners were in 
a formal sense Christian, the actual conduct of men called "Christians" has 
run the gamut of Western capacities, which are many and varied, and seems 
to have been fully exploited. It is at least clear that many different beliefs, 
many different human personalities, many different kinds of conduct some 
of them in conventional logical use actually antithetical have been given 
"Christian" as an attribute. There are those, some of whom would claim to 
be Christians, who find an antithesis between Jesus and Paul, at the very 
beginnings of Christian history. I shall rarely mean by Christian all men 
known as Christians. I shall try to make clear when I am dealing with most, 
many, or even average ordinary Christians, when I am dealing with excep- 
tional Christians, and when I am trying to set up a Christian type, or ideal, or 

Second, Christianity began as an apolitical movement, indeed, as a quite 

ii Robertson, Short History of Morals, Part IV, Chap. I. Gibbon himself was not 
above the effort to have his cake and eat it: "The religion of Constantine, achieved, 
in less than a century* the final conquest of the Roman Empire; but the victors them- 
selves were insensibly subdued by the arts of their vanquished rivals. "The Decline 
and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. by J. B. Bury, New York, Macmillan, 1914, Vol. 

m, p. 227. 


A History of Western Morals 

literally unworldly, even antiworldly, movement of protest, and became 
within a few generations an established church, with its own government, its 
own property, its own hierarchy, increasingly and in the end inextricably 
woven into the whole texture of organized, governed, working Western so- 
ciety. Perhaps just because its original ethical tone, still clearly put in many 
a New Testament passage for all to read, is so completely unworldly or 
millennial, or Utopian, or spiritual later Christian adaptation to this world 
has seemed a particularly glaring instance of the gap between word and deed. 
Christian attitudes toward wealth make a familiar instance, especially dear 
to Enlightened anti-Christians of the eighteenth century and after; these critics 
were more than willing to admit that the church had indeed achieved one 
miracle many a camel had gone through the needle's eye since Christ had 
advised the rich young man to give up his wealth. 12 

Yet Christians a St. Francis, and many another have said quite as 
harsh things about a church that enjoyed wealth, power, display, pride, that 
gave by its whole existence the lie to the good news of the gospels, a church 
that seemed to accept this world in all its ethical imperfections. You will not 
understand the Christian tradition, nor the twist the Enlightenment gave that 
tradition, if you do not realize that the violent yes, violent repudiation of 
the wickedness of ordinary human nature and of the society in which ordinary 
human nature has full and free play has never quite been suppressed in 
Christianity. The threat, or the promise, of a newborn, millennial society is 
always there. Christianity has never, for long, ceased to be a revolutionary 
faith for the few; nor has it, for long, ceased to be a consoling, conservative, 
routine faith for the many. But even that routine has not for long lapsed into 
moral depths like that of Renaissance Rome without provoking rebellion. 

Finally, the good Christian has always had, at least until quite recently, 
still another spur to activity, to something more than routine acceptance of 
whatever exists. Christianity is a monopolistic faith in that, like the later 
Judaism and Islam, it claims to be the one true faith, a faith destined to pre- 
vail for all on earth. The Christian wants to spread Christianity and he has 
often spread it with the sword; moreover, he wants the right kind of Chris- 
tianity, his own, and he will insure the prevailing of the right kind with an 
Inquisition. Another glaring repudiation of all that Jesus came to say and do? 
Another use of religion to cloak what really makes the missionary spirit, the 
desire for wealth and power? Again, the anti-Christian and the uneasy, the 
rebellious, the saintly Christian, surely often his brother under the skin 
12 Matthew 19: 16-24. 


The Beginnings of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition 

distort and oversimplify our human dilemma, our human tragedy. Christian- 
ity is an uneasy, a tragic, an impossible faith, in high tension between the 
real and the ideal, the "is" and the "ought" that is one of the sources of its 
strength; above all, that is how it came to spawn its long string of heretics, 
from Tertullian to Marx and Lenin. 

It is perhaps easier, though more dangerous, to begin with the general 
than with the particular. Christian concepts of ethics are related to how the 
believer thought and felt about the universe; and such thought and feeling 
are related to the temper of the Greco-Roman world in the first century A.D., 
to the conditions of living, not just to the "mode of production," in that 
modern, troubled time. We are dealing in big, vague, imprecise terms; but it 
looks as though there was in the first century A.D. a need for Christianity, in 
as rigorous a meaning for that somewhat disputed word "need" as the social 
psychologist can give it. 

The commonplaces, once more, are unavoidable. Christianity brought 
consolation to the unhappy, satisfaction some of it, through communistic 
sharing, material satisfaction to the poor and deprived, meaning and excite- 
ment to the bored, adjustment, if I may speak the language of our time, to the 
maladjusted. Christianity was in its origins a proletarian movement, a religion 
for the humble, for the weak, but, notably, as Nietzsche himself, I suspect, 
really knew, for the fiercely rebellious humble, the violent weak. It became 
very rapidly, as we have just noted, also a religion for the strong, even for 
the proud, with no more of paradox or of inconsistency than is the way of this 
world. Individuals, many of whom sincerely felt themselves to be Christians, 
have enjoyed wealth and power and conducted their lives in ways the man 
watcher has to note as logically irreconcilable with the ethics of the Sermon 
on the Mount. Yet many Christians at all times have clearly been aware of 
the origins and the spirit of their religion. Christianity, to revert to the ab- 
stract, has never ceased to do what it set out to do, to give to the meek their 
inheritance of the earth, the poor in spirit their kingdom of heaven. Chris- 
tianity is indeed, as Marx should have known, since he was so representative 
a Judaeo-Christian revolutionary, the food of the people. It has filled, nour- 
ished, quieted them; but it has also at times stimulated them just because it 
fed them, prodded them on in the eternal, impossible Christian endeavor. 
We are back at the Sermon on the Mount. 

The need for religion in the early years of the Roman One World is cer- 
tainly not to be established statistically, nor by any retrospective poll of 
opinion. We do know that there were at the time a great number of competing 


A History of Western Morals 

cults, a welter of cults, a variety worthy of our own day. This fact alone 
would establish the need. But we can perhaps go a bit further in defining the 
need. Some of it, surely, was the need of the deprived, the physical suffering 
of the poor, the starving, the beaten slave, the slum dweller of the great cities, 
cities of hundreds of thousands almost without what we call public utilities 
and with hardly more of what we call social services. For them the Christian 
communities, as we shall see, gave concrete material aid. We cannot be sure 
that there were relatively more of the physically deprived in this Greco- 
Roman world than, say, in the world of Hesiod, or of earlier agricultural 
communities. Since nothing like our own industrial revolution and use of 
power-driven machinery added to the total economic productivity of this 
Greco-Roman society, it may be that the poor really did become poorer as the 
Greco-Roman One World developed after the second century B.C. But we 
can be quite sure that many of the social supports, the traditional steady ways, 
the routine, unthinking acceptance of the human as well as the natural en- 
vironment, which go with small rural communities, and which are the real 
and natural "opium of the people," were lost to the slum dweller of Alex- 
andria, Antioch, Corinth, and Rome. 

Nor did the physically adequately nourished in this society always have 
the equivalent of those traditional comforting supports. We Americans, unfor- 
tunately, are likely to be naive believers in a crude economic interpretation 
of history; in spite of the evidence about us, we believe that collective human 
action of a revolutionary sort and early Christianity was such revolutionary 
action must spring from a sense of purely physical, purely economic, depri- 
vation. But what millions of at least adequately fed and housed human beings 
in the Greco-Roman world seem to have suffered from was spiritual depriva- 
tion. They could not wring religious meaning out of the Olympic pantheon; 
the gods were not really any better off than they were; they could not feel for 
the Empire, nor for the no-longer-free polis, nor for any political entity, 
satellite or the like, the emotions men need to feel. Stoicism was enough 
for some; but, unorganized, with no ritual, no communion, not indeed, a 
religion at all, less so than the least sacramental and communal of our own 
contemporary secular or surrogate religions, no more than a philosophy, 
Stoicism was not a faith for the many. This was a big, busy, still-growing 
society, unstable certainly at the imperial level, a society in which men moved 
about a good deal, a society in which, had there been sociologists and social 
psychologists, there would have been a good deal written about social mo- 


The Beginnings of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition 

bility, rootlessness, lack of inner direction, frustration, lack of community, 
and even, I feel sure, about the obvious alienation of the intellectuals. 

I shall insist on what I have just written; minions of rich, moderately 
well-to-do, and just ordinary men and women suffered in those days from 
spiritual deprivation. But if a reader cannot find meaning in that word "spirit- 
ual," I am willing to use the language of the hard-boiled. Millions of such 
men and women suffered from anxiety, from a feeling of insecurity, from 
sheer boredom. Theirs was a society in which the established groupings of 
human beings, which were also rankings, assignments of accepted status, were 
in part, and in very significant part, especially in the cities of the Mediter- 
ranean coasts, breaking down and leaving the individual, a human being, al- 
most identical, as Cicero said, with other human beings. Theirs was, in our 
language, a society with a strong egalitarian and individualistic drive, a society 
in which individuals felt they were not born to a place, but had to make a 
place for themselves. 

I exaggerate deliberately. There were many, many spots, not all, by any 
means, backwaters, in the Greco-Roman world where the old reassuring 
steady ways continued. Many men and women, even in the great cities, must 
have gone on quietly doing, believing, being, what their ancestors had done, 
believed, and been. They crop up to the end, even among the literary, an 
Ausonius, a Sidonius, an Ammianus Marcellinus. But read and it is fine 
reading those few specimens of the social historian's treasured source, ap- 
proximations to the novel, which we have from those days, the Satyricon of 
Petronius and the Golden Ass of Apuleius, and add for good measure some 
skits of Lucian's. You will, I think, conclude that this was a world in which 
ordinary men and women did feel uprooted. Poor Trimalchio, for all his 
self-won wealth, if not, indeed, because of it, was at least as insecure as any- 
one Arthur Koestler ever drew. 

To the poor, the bored, the unhappy, and, let us never forget, to the men 
of good will, to the ambitious, to those extraordinary men the professional 
revolutionary leaders, those organizers of disorganisation, as well as to their 
successors, the reorganizes of organization, and, in a sense most important 
of all, to the minions who did what others did, the joiners, the conformists, 
the accepters of fashion (without whom there would be no fashion) to all 
of these Christianity brought meaning, and opportunity. H. L. Mencken puts 
it neatly: "Try to imagine two evangelists on a street-corner in Corinth or 
Ephesus, one expounding the Nicomachaean Ethics [of Aristotle] or a homily 
by Valentinus the Gnostic and the other reciting the Sermon on the Mount 


A History of Western Morals 

or the Twenty-third Psalm; certainly it is not hard to guess which would fetch 
the greater audience of troubled and seeking men." 13 Christianity I must 
repeat that I am writing from a historical-naturalistic point of view in its 
first days satisfied the needs and gave scope for the gifts of many different 
kinds of men Christ himself, John the Evangelist, Peter, Paul, the many 
now unknown who must have contributed to the canon of the New Testament. 

An ethic is always closely related to an attempt to understand the uni- 
verse, to a theology, a cosmology, or, at the very least, to water such great 
concerns down as much as they ever can be, a Weltanschauung, or world 
view. Christian ethics could hardly be what they are and have been had 
Christianity not given the kind of answers it did to the problems that troubled 
the men and women of the first century A.D. Of first importance for under- 
standing the extreme flnriworldliness of early Christianity is the doctrine of 
the Second Coming. The first Christian Jews, as we have noted above, were 
prepared for a Messiah, for a leader who would carry out the word of the 
Hebrew prophets. As Christianity spread to the gentiles, the doctrine of the 
Messiah who was to restore Zion was transmuted into the doctrine of the risen 
Christ who was to return shortly indeed at the end of this world, at the final 
judgment day, when the saved should enter on an inheritance of eternal bliss, 
the damned on one of eternal misery. Christ himself is authority: "Verily I 
say unto you, there be some of them that stand here, which shall in no wise 
taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom." 14 

Now to many of us, perhaps born tough-minded, but certainly molded by 
a culture in which such dominant strains as philosophic rationalism, instru- 
mentalism, and the practice of natural science are most unfavorable to Mes- 
sianic beliefs of just this sort that is, to beliefs based on a supernatural 
Saviour and an interruption of the ordinary natural regularities the doctrine 
of the Second Coining is incomprehensible nonsense. 15 Yet if you really 

*3 Treatise on Right and Wrong, p. 181. I have no space for the interesting subject 
of what the competing cults brought, and why Christianity won out over them. 
Broadly, Christianity brought everything they did, and more, notably a more im- 
mediate, concrete promise of salvation and a much better-served, better-organized, 
better-loved Church Militant. I refer the reader to the books I suggest on p. 567 of 
Ideas and Men and on this topic especially to two of the older ones, Franz Cumont, 
The Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism, and T. R. Glover, The Conflict of Re- 
ligions in the Early Roman Empire. 

14 Matthew 16:28. The Synoptic Gospels are in agreement on this point 

15 The above was written not with irony, merely with caution. Messianic, or at least 
Utopian, beliefs of another sort, based on eighteenth-century belief in the natural 
goodness and reasonableness of man, still survive the twentieth-century intellectual 
climate, though I think they are wilting a bit. 


The Beginnings of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition 

thought and felt, were really sure, that to secure, even to desire, what your 
appetites seek vigorously in this world food, drink, sexual satisfaction, right 
on through the long list of satisfactions of the flesh, and of the spirit guided 
by the flesh were to mean eternal pain, very soon and very surely, you would 
not be much attracted by the doctrine of the Golden Mean. You could not 
tell yourself comfortably that you were avoiding in matters of sex, for instance, 
the neurotic extremes of Don Juan on one hand and of St. Anthony on the 
other. You would almost certainly do your best to imitate St Anthony. 

We know that even in our own world, in which it is still easy and fashion- 
able to be worldly, there are men and women who reject the world. Our 
psychiatrists tell us that to continue the specific, concrete example of mat- 
ters sexual some individuals they, and we, consider abnormal find that the 
act of sexual intercourse is repugnant, impossible, hateful. All that is needed 
to get back to the early Christians is to add "immoral." The problem of under- 
standing the origins of Christian ethical extremes of repudiation of "normal" 
and "natural" satisfactions of appetite is not one of finding individual ascetics. 
The Stoics, even the Epicureans, furnished plenty of such individuals. It is 
to explain why such extremes got incorporated in a great universalist faith, 
became fashionable, to use an accurate word with no derogatory intent. One 
can give a vague sociological answer of the sort I have tried to give above: 
in a sophisticated egalitarian world the very fact of luxury and self-indulgence 
in a small privileged class cast discredit on the flesh, bred a contrary asceti- 
cism. St. Anthony is a delayed response to Messalina; the decencies of ordi- 
nary Christian self-control are healthy human reactions against the self- 
indulgence of the masses with their "bread and circuses." 16 

Yet the historian must not quite dismiss the accident of greatness. In 
these earliest formative years Christian asceticism or antiworldliness may 
have taken on its extreme form in part because of the personalities of the men 
who made it so much more than another Jewish splinter group. It may even 
be that Christianity has had such heavy but on the whole remarkably success- 
ful going with some of the facts of life because that extraordinary revolution- 
ary tamer of revolution, St. Paul, held that it is better to marry than to burn 
and held, also, that even those who desired to speak with tongues should 
do so decently and in order. 17 

16 Anthony is, of course, much later. Reference books date him hopefully 2507-350? 
By this time the belief in an immediate Second Coming had probably lessened greatly; 
earlier ascetics would not have felt the need to go to the desert, in their view as im- 
permanent as Alexandria itself. 
17 1 Corinthians 7:9 and 14:39, 40. 


A History of Western Morals 

The first Christians were not at least, many of them were not respect- 
able people, above all, not tame, moderate, controlled bourgeois. The per- 
petual indignation with which, during the last few hundred years, idealistic 
Christians and idealistic anti-Christians have proclaimed and deplored the 
obvious fact that most Christians are respectable and even, in the West, 
bourgeois has surely a justification and explanation; Christianity is in origin 
a religion of protest against the ordinary life of men on earth, against I'homme 
moyen sensuel and all his works. Some of what St. Paul reproaches the con- 
gregation at Corinth with is the disorderly enthusiasm, the emotional running 
amok, the Holy Rollerism and camp-meeting frenzies we Americans know 
so well. We know it so well that we still have the folk belief that many a child, 
not always a legitimate child, has been conceived in the pious excitement of 
camp meeting. Men and saints like Paul, who prize order, know well that 
other men need curbing. They know that sex is a strong and potentially 
dangerous appetite that can lead to jealousy, fighting, disturbances of all 
sorts. They know that man really is not what the hopeful made of Aristotle's 
famous phrase, a "political animal" in the sense the philosophic anarchist 
gives the words, an animal whose appetites, desires, impulses, lead him auto- 
matically to the ethically and communally good. Christian ethics do repress, 
surely in part because the early Christians, perhaps a bit more than the run 
of mankind, needed repressing. 

In our day, when Christianity, even among the seekers, is most respect- 
able, the violent rebelliousness of early Christianity needs underlining. Many 
of these Christian men and women, in spite of the ethics of gentleness clearly 
present in their canons of belief, were firmly, ferociously, unparadoxically 
tough. They were not, even at their gentlest, "liberals," rationalists, humani- 
tarians, not, let me underline and repeat, not respectable. They could hate 
as well as love, and both fiercely. The first ascetics did not go to the desert 
as a social service; they went there because of a great disgust. It took a long 
time to transmute that disgust to love, love for one's fellows as they are. There 
are those who hold that the transmuting has never been complete in Chris- 

Nietzsche, of course, felt this profound early Christian revulsion against 
things as they are, above all, against men as they are, and sympathized with 
it more than he liked to admit. Established Christianity was to spread its 
net as widely as Western life at its fullest and most varied. Nietzsche was no 
historian, and he was quite wrong in identifying all Christianity with what 
he called "slave-morality," the revolt of the weak against the strong. But the 


The Beginnings of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition 

element of revolt is there, unmistakable, irrational, as mad a transvaluat 
of values as any the West has experienced. One little detail: the "poor" of 
famous phrase we know as the "poor in spirit" is, in New Testament Gre 
the word TTTCOXOS, ptochos, or cringer, hence beggar, a damning word inde 
not the more usual Tre'v^s, penes, the working poor man, a word no m 
scornful than most such by which we in the West commonly reflect our & 
disagreement with the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount. But the good m 
remains literally: blessed are the cringing, the cowering, the beggars, in spi 
The Goodspeed "American translation" makes this "blessed are those ^ 
feel their spiritual need." Talk about bowdlerizing! Liddell and Scott cc 
ment on TH-O^OS, "the word . . . always had a bad sense until it was 
nobled in the Gospels." They are right, and Nietzsche wrong: the ITT&>XOI 
Trveu/xart, become the poor in spirit or even those who feel their spiritual ne 
have indeed been ennobled. But they seem hardly cringers any more; they 
Bernard of Clairvaux, Innocent HI, Loyola, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards. Tl 
are not even any longer near those mystical quietist goals, theoria, atarcu 
nirvana. 18 


I have in the preceding pages done violence to the modern principle tl 
"facts" should first of all be established before they are discussed. Actua 
the facts of early Christian asceticism, otherworldliness, revulsion agai 
pagan license are well-established. And they are extremes, heroic extremes 
so heroic that calmer leadership soon got to work to tame them. St. Sime 
Stylites will do as one example, up there on his pillar sixty feet high in i 
Syrian sun (the top does appear to have been railed in) eating, drinki 
sleeping, defecating all very little and preaching a great deal year uj 
year. The excesses of the monastics suggest, indeed, that the old Greek sp 
of the agon had been transferred to a sport that would hardly have appea 
to the Greeks of Pericles's Athens. 

The ideal of antiworldliness in conventional Christianity is hard enoi 
for the innocent rationalist to accept; monasticism even in its tempered la 
Western form with the Benedictines must seem to him regrettable nonser 
We should have no difficulty understanding why the amazing feats of 

is The verse is Matthew 5:3. The Goodspeed New Testament: An American Tran 
tion, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1923; Liddell and Scott, Greek-Eng 
Lexicon, 8th ed., revised, New York, Hampers, 1897, s.v., TTTUXS, P- 1342. 


A History of Western Morals 

earlier monks and hermits disgusted historians like Lecky, formed without 
benefit of Freud. 

There is, perhaps, no phase in the moral history of mankind of a deeper or more 
painful interest than this ascetic epidemic. A hideous, sordid, and emaciated 
maniac, without knowledge, without patriotism, without natural affection, passing 
his life in a long routine of useless and atrocious self-torture, and quailing before 
the ghastly phantoms of his delirious brain, had become the ideal of the nations 
which had known the writings of Plato and Cicero and the lives of Socrates and 
Cato. For about two centuries, the hideous maceration of the body was regarded 
as the highest proof of excellence. St. Jerome declares, with a thrill of admiration, 
how he had seen a monk, who for thirty years had lived exclusively on a small por- 
tion of barley bread and of muddy water; another, who lived in a hole and never 
ate more than five figs for his daily repast; a third, who cut his hair only on Easter 
Sunday, who never washed his clothes, who never changed his tunic till it fell to 
pieces, who starved himself till his eyes grew dim, and his skin "like pumice and 
stone," and whose merits, shown by these austerities, Homer himself would be 
unable to recount. 19 

Lecky himself goes on recounting instance after instance. They have the 
accuracy, and the misleading quality, of any modern series of faits divers and 
horror stories. It is unfair, and unsound psychologically, to equate St. Simeon 
Stylites and Kelly the flagpole sitter, the record-breaking monk with the 
record-breaking sophomore. Yet there is a simple residue of truth in such 
comparisons. Early Christian asceticism does display this element of paradox, 
the obvious willingness of the man who flees the world to accept the wonder- 
ing attention of the world. These mortifiers of the flesh look in the long per- 
spective of Christian experience to be dangerously close to the great Chris- 
tian sin of pride. They are, however, in some sense victims of the thirst of the 
masses for wonders and wonder-workers. 

Yet the outsider may be safer if he notes simply that historical Christi- 
anity has always produced men, women, and movements that reach out and 
over the bounds of any disciplined good, even the good of humility, into the 
wilds, the depths. At any rate, there is no use in our adding to the rationalist 
horror of the philosophes at the spectacle of the filth-covered anchorite the 
smug satisfaction of popularized psychiatry at so evident a display of its 
rightness. It does not seem enough to appeal to any of the catchwords, not 
even to "psychosis." At most, we may concede to modern intellectual fashion 
that the anchorites who fled the world were maladjusted in that world, per- 
haps that their flight was a sublimation of drives frustrated in that world. 

19 W.E.H. Lecky, History of European Morals, Vol. II, pp. 107-108. 


The Beginnings of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition 

Later, more disciplined monasticism may even look to some of us a morally 
better sublimation for frustrated virtue and consequent great moral disgust 
than, shall we say, writing a newspaper column. 

The rush to the desert it really was almost a rush must seem in part a 
fashion, a minor mass movement in which many took part because men are 
imitative animals. But the leaders would have been sure that God had sent 
them to the desert that they might bring home to their fellows how sinful the 
world had grown, how much in need of no mere reform, no mere preaching, 
no mere conferences, but of root-and-branch destruction of the cancerous 
growth of worldliness. Perhaps we can leave it at that. 

Of course, not even at the height of the movement to the desert were the 
masses of Christians involved. For us it is perhaps more important to try 
to estimate what degree of personal asceticism, of repudiation of the world 
of the flesh, penetrated into the rank and file. Clearly no good answer is 
possible, but it seems likely that in the first few centuries the drive of Chris- 
tian asceticism did go wider and deeper than it has gone since, save perhaps in 
such renewals of this element of Christianity as Calvinist Puritanism and 
Calvinism, as we shall see, was not ascetic after the manner of the early 
Christians. This early asceticism trusted no appetite, not even the simple 
appetite for food. When Tertullian writes that "through love of eating love 
of impurity finds passage," we may well believe that many of the faithful 
did find all bodily enjoyments dangerous, all potential passages for evil. 20 

Christian asceticism, then, is real and extensive. Certainly most Christians 
did not pursue the ideal into saintly depths. But the tone, the coloration, of 
ordinary lives was altered from the tone that had been imparted by the very 
effort of the pagans to attain the beautiful-and-good. A dignified, rhetorical, 
but, one feels, sincere avowal of Christian asceticism comes out in the poetry 
classical in form of the convert Paulinus: 

Time was when, not with equal force, but with equal ardor, I could join with 
thee in summoning the deaf Phoebus [Apollo] from his cave in Delphi. . . . Now 
another force, a mightier God, subdues my soul. He forbids me give up my time 
to the vanities of leisure or business, and the literature of the fable, that I may 
obey his laws and see his light, which is darkened by the cunning skill of the 
sophist, and the figments of the poet who fills the soul with vanity and falsehood, 
and only trains the tongue. 21 

20 Tertullian, De Jejunis, Chap. I. 

21 Carmina, x: 22.30. Quoted and translated in Dill, Roman Society in the Last Cen- 
tury of the Western Empire, p. 398. 


A History of Western Morals 

Paulinus found "business" a vanity. We come to the old accusation that 
Christianity unmanned men, and women, and made them unfit for the world's 
work. It is true that the monks fled this world in all its aspects. It is probably 
true that for some centuries Christianity did turn many less radical rebels 
against the daily round of duty done civic, soldierly duty. Tertullian can 
always be trusted to blurt it out plain: nee ulla magis res aliena, quam pub- 
lica. 22 The first Christians were pacifists of a sort, pacifists who would not fight 
worldly figftts. There are classic texts in the Sermon on the Mount: 

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called children of God. 

but I say unto you, Resist not him that is evil: but whosoever smiteth thee on thy 
right cheek, turn to him the other also. 

but I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that persecute you: 23 
Paul himself occasionally sounds like a moderate pacifist: 

Render to no man evil for evil. Take thought of things honourable in the sight 
of all men. If it be possible, as much as in you lieth, be at peace with all men. 
Avenge not yourselves, beloved, but give place unto wrath: for it is written, 
Vengeance belongeth unto me; I will repay, saith the Lord But if thine enemy 
hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him to drink: for in so doing thou shalt 
heap coals of fire upon his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with 
good. 24 

Yet Christianity was not and is not faith in passive resistance, to say 
nothing of Laodicaean or skeptical lying down before the facts of life. The 
charge to the apostles is the familiar text to bring up against the Sermon on 
the Mount: 

Think not that I am come to send peace on the earth: I came not to send peace, 
but a sword. For I came to set a man at variance against his father, and the daugh- 
ter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law: and a 
man's foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother 
more than me is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more 
than me is not worthy of me. 25 

We have to get beyond the balancing of texts one against another, Christians 
for the most part have never really believed that the truths of their faith 

22 "No thing more alien [to the Christian] than the public thing." Tertullian, Apolo- 
geticus, Chap. 38.3. 

23 Matthew 5:9, 39, 44. 
2 * Romans 12:17-21. 
25 Matthew 10:34-37. 


The Beginnings of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition 

would impose themselves magically on the wicked of the world. The many 
figures of struggle, even of fighting with the sword, so obvious in the New 
Testament and among the Fathers, we know historically turned out to be no 
mere figures of speech. At least as early as the Arian controversy at the end 
of the third century Christians were resorting to bodily violence to further 
the work of God. Such conduct ought not to surprise and shock us as it 
appeared to surprise and shock the Victorians. 26 

It is a clear induction from Western history that the old spirit of the 
Homeric agon is not subdued but heightened when the individual fights, not 
primarily or solely for his honor or his prestige, but for the Right, for the 
word of God, for Fatherland, for the word of Dialectical Materialism. From 
martyrdom to crusading is but a step, an easy and a natural step, for martyr- 
dom itself is a form of crusading. I do not mean here to make the cheap asser- 
tion that the Christian who turns, and keeps turning, the other cheek is merely 
using "tactics" he will change when he thinks he or his cause will profit. I 
mean, rather, that the Christian drive toward realizing the good right here 
on earth is so strong as to amount to a ruling passion; the Christian cannot 
avoid resisting evil. 27 

Otherworldliness running to the extremes of asceticism and even, among 
ordinary men, to an indifference to the call of citizenship is surely present in 
early Christianity. So, too, to complete the catalogue of attitudes alien to 
most of us today, is what must be called the anti-intellectualism of early 
Christianity. The later Greco-Roman formal culture, as we have noted 
above, was strongly tinged with rationalism. Christianity was in the beginning 
a faith of the poor and humble who disliked and distrusted the higher educa- 
tion and the higher educated of their time; it was a transcendental faith that 
could not for a moment stomach such fashionable beliefs as Euhemerism nor, 
perhaps even more repugnant because so high-minded, Stoic or Epicurean 
deism. The texts are there, St. Paul himself providing some of the best: 

If any man thinketh that he is wise among you in this world, let him become a 

26 See Westermarck, Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, Vol. I, p. 348 ff., 
and especially his back reference to Lecky, p. 349 n. Lecky had argued that it was 
only the influence of the struggle with Islam that turned the Christian church from 
merely "condoning" war to "consecrating" it. 

27 Note the trouble Matthew 5:39 has always given. The Greek Trorqpos, poneros, is 
literally "evil." But the text "resist not evil" has been interpreted commonly as mean- 
ing do not resist with actual physical violence the man who is doing an evil thing. 
The Christian must resist evil, regarded as what we moderns would think of as a 
"force," just as he must hate sin; he must love, as ultimately images of God, all men, 
sinners or saints. Christianity is an exacting faith. 


A History of Western Morals 

fool, that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with 
God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their craftiness: and again, The 
Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain. 28 

The Fathers are more explicit. Here is the third-century Didascalia Aposto- 

This says bluntly, "Have nothing to do with pagan books," and gives some rather 
surprising grounds for this injunction. What connection can any Christian have 
with all the errors they contain? He has the Word of God what else does he 
want? The Bible not only provides for the supernatural life but for all cultural 
need too! Is it history he wants? There are the Books of Kings. Eloquence, poetry? 
The Prophets! Lyrics? The Psalms! Cosmology? Genesis! Laws, morality? The 
glorious Law of God! But all these outlandish books that come from the Devil 
they must be hurled away. 29 

Yet, fixed though the eyes of the early Christian were on the next world, 
it is clear that he sought to lessen actual suffering in this one. We moderns 
should have no trouble recognizing the very real aid and comfort the evangel 
in Greek, "good news" brought simply in terms of psychological satis- 
faction. Christianity at its minimal was surely a triumph of faith healing not 
remotely rivaled by the best we moderns have been able to do outside or on 
the margin of organized Christianity. Whatever their hopes of a Second Com- 
ing, the early Christian also took some care of the animal man. The apostles 
themselves began the communistic sharing of things of this world as of the 
next which was to be the great strength of the new faith: 

And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and they sold 
their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, according as any man had 
need. And day by day, continuing stedfastly with one accord in the temple, and 
breaking bread from house to house, they did take their food with gladness and 
singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the 
Lord added to them day by day those that were being saved. 30 

Charity in something like our modern sense was almost from the first a 
part of Christian ethics. That it was later taken up into high theology as part 
of the doctrine of good works does not by any means lessen its reality or its 
importance. The Calvinists did hold that the Biblical "the poor ye have al- 

28 1 Corinthians 3: 18-21. 

29 H. I. Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity, p. 320. Marrou on pp. 318-321 

handles this subject briefly and thoroughly. For more detail, see C. L. Ellspermann, 

The Attitude of the Early Christian Fathers towards Pagan Literature and Learning, 

Washington, D.C., Catholic University of America, Patristic Studies, Vol. LXXXH, 


so Acts 2:44-47. 


The Beginnings of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition 

ways with you" had an ethical as well as a cosmological implication, poverty 
being a proper punishment as well as a God-made necessity; in their way, 
the nineteenth-century utilitarians, who were most dubiously Christian, went 
even further, holding that charity was both ineffective, for it never really 
"solved" the problem of poverty, and also most damaging to its recipients, 
who were kept enough alive to procreate more poor, quite contrary to the 
intentions of Organic Evolution. But in spite of all this, over the centuries 
Christian ethics has enjoined the feeding of the hungry, the clothing of the 
naked, the alleviation of pain, the kindly treatment of the stranger. There 
is a humanitarian strain in Christianity, though there it clearly is feebler, or, 
at any rate, more resigned, than in the religion of the Enlightenment. 

We are back to Nietzsche. Christianity did set up as virtues much that 
looks in common sense quite the opposite of the warrior virtues of Homer 
and of Moses. 

Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my weaknesses, that the strength of 
Christ may rest upon me. Wherefore I take pleasure in weaknesses, in injuries, in 
necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, 
then am I strong. 31 

Christianity did urge that love should replace rivalry; it did seek to lessen 
the competitiveness of the classical agonistic view of life. In modern terms, 
there was in early Christianity a strong vein of insistence on what we should 
call co-operation, altruism, even, perhaps, social security. I must come 
shortly again to the problem of the paradoxical nature of Christianity; but, for 
the moment, let me simply say that Christianity does sound firmly a note not 
so clearly heard before in the West: the note of the agape, the lovefeast, the 
common weal that is common woe to none, not even the outsider. 

The note is sounded most clearly in the Beatitudes, which must be read 
along with the Ten Commandments: 

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. 
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. 

Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be 

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. 

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. 

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called children of God. 

Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs 

si H Corinthians 12:9-10. 


A History of Western Morals 

is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and perse- 
cute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. 32 

The two codes if one may call the Beatitudes a code are both parts of 
the Christian ethical inheritance, and though the sentimentalist is likely to 
find the one affirmative and kindly, the other negative and harsh, they do 
belong together. 


Historical Christianity is no monolithic faith. It is not sufficient to say 
that it is a complex set of beliefs and practices always subject to heresies and 
splintering. One must note that Christianity is a religion full of quite deliberate 
paradoxes of the emotions: 

He that findeth his lif e shall lose it; and he that loseth his lif e for my sake shall find 

But many shall be last that are first; and first that are last. 33 

The Fathers, too, were fond of this striking weapon of paradox, so suited to 
the defiant challenge Christianity makes to common sense. Tertullian will do: 
Cerium est, quia impossibile est?* 

The verbal and literary paradox, which is not quite the paradox of the 
logician, is likely to be thought today to be somewhat cerebral, typical of the 
way a mind like Oscar Wilde's or Aldous Huxley's works. In high 
philosophy it smacks of the Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis. But in the 
logic of the emotions this sort of paradox simply expresses the human condi- 
tion, the eternal "I hate and I love . . . and suffer." In Christianity the para- 
dox can be stated simply and tritely: the Christian can neither accept nor 
deny this harsh world of the flesh, cannot save for a few mystics who are 
perhaps not really Christian feel this world as illusion, as evil, as some- 
thing to be wholly transcended. Neither, of course, can he accept this world 
as pleasant, or interesting, or amusing, or, indeed, as quite necessary and 
permanent, as it stands, a mere product of historical necessity. 

Against the extremes of otherworldly ethics that I have brought forward 

32 Matthew 5: 3-11. 

33 Matthew 10:39; 19:30. 

34 Tertullian, De Came Christi. "It is certain because it is impossible." This form is 
much more powerful than, indeed, quite different in meaning from, the corruption 
often quoted, Credo quia impossibile (or, in some versions, absurdum), "I believe 
because it is impossible" (or absurd). I do not wish to be understood as citing Tertul- 
lian as a typical Christian, but he certainly is a good Christian. 


The Beginnings of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition 

above, the historian can bring out many characteristic Christian compromises, 
even from quite early days. One may argue that Christ himself had no the- 
ology. It is quite clear that there was in early Christianity a strong current 
of distrust of things of the mind, a preference for the wisdom of babes and 
sucklings. Yet within a few generations Christianity had developed a subtle 
and complex theology which enlisted the best minds of Greco-Roman culture. 
The Fathers were worried over the temptations set forth in the pagan classics, 
but even so Rousseauistic or Carlylean a character as Tertullian held that the 
pagan authors simply had to be mastered if the new church were to maintain 
proper educational standards. As for St. Jerome, though he regretted that he 
had read Cicero, he continued to write a fine polished Latin; one suspects 
that he didn't really regret Cicero. 35 

Extreme pacifism was early qualified, and by the time of St. Augustine 
this foremost of Western founding fathers could write that when Christ said 
"all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword" he referred to such 
persons only as arm themselves to shed the blood of others without either 
command or permission of any lawful authority in short, to common-law 
murderers and unsuccessful wagers of civil war, not to legitimate soldiers or 
policemen. 36 The formula had been found much earlier, early enough to get 
into the canon, though it is surely unlikely that Christ himself found it: 
"Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and unto God 
the things that are God's." 37 Christians could and did fight in the armies of 
the Empire. But the swing was not unlimited; they could never fight in the 
gladiatorial games, never, as good Christians, fully identify themselves with 
the pleasures of the Roman people. 

Even perhaps, above all on sex the Christians made their compro- 
mises. After all, St. Paul's most famous pronouncement on the matter did not 
enjoin total continence; marriage became early, and remained, one of the 
Christian sacraments. Among the highly placed of the Christian world the 
line between Caesar and Christ was drawn rather freely: the Christian em- 
perors and empresses were for the most part not appreciably more chaste than 
had been the pagans. But, again, the swing was not complete. Even for ordi- 
nary folk Christian moral standards in sex relations were of a Hebraic strict- 
ness. Critics find a continued harshness toward the sinner who strayed outside 

35 On Christianity and classical education, see Marrou, History of Education in An- 
tiquity, Chap. DC. 

36 Augustine, Contra Faustum in Migne, Patrologiae cursus completus (Latin series), 

37 Matthew 22:21. 


A History of Western Morals 

the permitted connubial intercourse. Westermarck, for instance, points out 
that if Christian feeling for the sacredness of the individual soul made of 
infanticide a crime punishable by death, and even perhaps lessened the num- 
ber of actual infanticides, Christian feeling for the enormities of fornication 
led to great harshness toward the mother of illegitimate offspring. 38 

Christians have over the centuries conducted themselves variously in 
matters sexual; and even Christian ethical principles as to sex are by no means 
monolithic. We may as well face at this point the anti-Christian's charge that 
Christianity has by its ideas on the subject perverted a fine, natural, simple 
instinct: without Christianity, we should all come of age, and stay of age, 
serenely and enjoyably, as in Samoa. If this and similar charges are made 
from a naive "naturalistic" base of belief that if men, and women, would but 
let their natural instincts guide them in sexual relations all would be well, 
they start from nonsense and must end in nonsense. Just as a sport, sexual 
intercourse requires for success acquired skills; poor Homo sapiens cannot 
even swim without lessons. But sex is much more than a sport, and the regu- 
lation, in some senses even the suppression, of sexual relations has been the 
concern of all societies and all ethical systems. All this should be truism. 

But has not Christianity suppressed too much, made learning sexual skills 
more difficult, turned women, whose physiological evolution seems to have 
inclined them on an average away from easy sexual satisfaction, into actual 
frigidity? I do not think we know nearly enough about the physiology, psy- 
chology, and sociology of sex in humans to answer that question. Purely from 
the record, it must be said that there are Greek and Jewish precedents in our 
own tradition for the rigorous control of sex conduct, and for feelings, senti- 
ments, that the business of sex is in some sense shameful, and certainly is so 
if it is public or promiscuous. And to anticipate, it must be noted that many, 
many Enlightened anti-Christians of various freethinking sects since 1700 
have been at least as prudish, as repressive, about sex as any Christian. John 
Stuart Mill is, perhaps, an extreme example, but there he is. 39 As it has worked 

38 Westermarck, Christianity and Morals, New York, Macmillan, 1939, p. 241. The 
theologians had difficulty over the problem as to just when the immortal soul entered 
the embryo. They finally decided that forty days after conception the embryo in- 
formatics was endowed with a soul and became the embryo formatus, the killing of 
which was a crime punishable by death. See Westennarck, Christianity and Morals, 
pp. 243-244. 

39 Mill's Mrs. Taylor is surely the most high-minded of frigid females we know from 
the record and somehow high-minded frigidity seems much worse than the merely 
neurotic kind. See for the curious story of Mill's nonsex life F. A. Hayek, John 
Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951. 


The Beginnings of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition 

out, ordinary parish Christianity has allowed for a fine range of sexual 
"naturalness," notably in the great Christian centuries of medieval times. I 
incline to the belief that recurring phases of what the vulgar call "Puritanism" 
in sex matters are in Western history usually symptoms of deep-seated social 
problems as are recurring phases of widespread sexual license. 

Finally, it is true enough that historic Christianity has been what the 
Enlightened would have to call antifeminist. Christianity has blamed a lot on 
Eve, and taken it out on her daughters. But here again, only a very unhis- 
torically-minded polemicist can maintain that Christianity has elevated man 
and lowered woman more than did the earlier cultures from which it derived, 
and into which it breathed new life, notably the Jewish and the Hellenic. 
Feminism as a faith is a product of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. 
Roman women in the upper classes of the Empire did gain an extraordinary 
degree of personal freedom; but Christianity did not end a nonexistent Roman 
feminism, for the old classical culture was definitely a masculine one. Here, 
as throughout, the never-quite-effaced Christian doctrine of the equality of 
all souls, even female souls, preserved a base from which the Enlightenment 
was later to work. And it should be obvious that anti-Christian writers have, 
by their emphasis on some monkish writings, greatly exaggerated the extent 
to which Christianity condemned women as women, and blamed them as the 
source of evil. Ordinary parish Christianity, the Christianity of the cure of 
souls, if it wanted women kept in their place, also wanted that place to be a 
dignified and honorable one, far nearer the old Roman than to the old 
Athenian place of woman. 

Here, too, Western Christianity made one of its most fateful compromises: 
complete celibacy, impossible and, therefore, undesirable, for the many, was 
made necessary for the clergy. There was for centuries a struggle within the 
Roman Church over this requirement, and the matter was not finally settled 
for the lower secular clergy in the West until the great Cluniac reforms of the 
eleventh century. But almost from the first, as the clergy began in practice and 
in law to be distinguished from the laity, there were voices to urge that celi- 
bacy is essential to the priesthood. Yet here again the church as established 
avoided the extreme. It accepted, or, rather, made, a distinction between 
clergy and laity; that distinction was real, tangible, and important, but at the 
bottom it was a functional distinction, as a distinction of status, though a very 
holy one, not a distinction of kind or essence; nor was it, since the ranks of 
the clergy were never wholly closed to the poorest lad with a vocation, even 
in the less democratic phases of the church, a distinction of caste. The Cath- 


A History of Western Morals 

olic priest was held to more rigorous standards of conduct than the layman, 
and he had privileges that went with his responsibilities; but he was not a 
different sort of being, not fundamentally holier, than the layman. The saint 
is holier than the ordinary Christian; but the church has carefully avoided 
canonizing anyone as saint until after death. The Catholic Church avoided 
here the Manichaean, and, later, Albigensian, heresy, in which a caste of 
perfect ones, Cathari, was so sharply separated theologically from the com- 
mon run of the faithful as to seem different beings, a caste in the Eastern 
sense that the West has always repudiated in ideal, and, therefore, in the 
long, long run, in practice. 

The church has avoided the trap of formal dualism in theology and meta- 
physics. The simple relatively simple moral distinction between good and 
evil sets an unavoidable problem to the monotheist: a God all-powerful, all- 
knowing, and all-good presents to human logic a challenge. There have been 
many solutions to this problem of theodicy in Christianity; Job's seems to me 
still the basic one: 

Then Job answered the Lord, and said, I know that thou canst do all things, And 
that no purpose of thine can be restrained. Who is this that hideth counsel without 
knowledge? Therefore have I uttered that which I understood not, Things too 
wonderful for me, which I knew not. Hear, I beseech thee, and I will speak; I 
will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me. I had heard of thee by the hearing 
of the ear; But now mine eye seeth thee, Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent 
in dust and ashes. 40 

One humanly tempting solution has remained heretical from the Mani- 
chaeans to John Stuart Mill, who fell from freethinking into this heresy in 
his old age: this is the dualistic solution of making God all-good but not 
all-powerful. God in this view wants the good to prevail, but he cannot elimi- 
nate evil, Satan, the Dark One, his opponent. We human beings ought to 
fight for God, not for Satan, but we cannot be sure of being on the winning 
side. To put things crudely, the religious difficulty of this solution is that a 
God whose intentions are no doubt good but whose proven capacities are 
not much greater than man's is not a very useful ally in the moral struggle, 
and soon becomes quite as superfluous as the deist's watchmaker god 
indeed, the lower case letter "g" heralds his superfluity. To the dualist's argu- 
ment that the fighter for the right who goes into the struggle quite uncertain 
as to who will win is morally superior to the monotheist who knows he, 
through God, cannot possibly lose, the Christian monotheist has an effective 

40 Job 42: 1-6. 


The Beginnings of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition 

reply: On this earth the outcome of any given struggle is highly uncertain, for 
God does not rig the struggle here; He has ordered the universe as a whole in 
accordance with His wisdom, not ours, and the dualist argument above is in 
fact an argument for theological humanism, not for Christianity. 

But these are high and ultimate matters. The historian adhering to the 
merely empirical can assert that over the centuries the dualistic solution of 
the problem of evil has been rejected as shallow, commonsensical, morally 
inadequate. A church that accepted dualism as an ultimate would soon cease 
to satisfy human needs for an ultimate. Not only Roman Catholic, but the 
great majority of Protestant Christianity, has refused to set up the patent, 
unavoidable Christian tension between this world and another, between Na- 
ture and God, as a dualistic antithesis, a polarity of equals. Christian morality 
accepts competition, conflict, the agon, even a touch of pride, but only in 
tension with loving kindness, altruism, co-operation. In simplest terms, Chris- 
tianity since Augustine certainly, accepts war on this earth as necessary if it 
is just if it furthers Christian purpose; but its heaven, its ideal, its ultimate 
moral tone, is peace. 41 

Christianity so sets the way Westerners, even Westerners who would hate to 
think of themselves as Christians, thi'nV and feel about morals that it is worth 
our while here, at the risk of some repetitiousness, to put the broad lines of 
that way and its difficulties as succinctly as possible. 

The individual, endowed with an immortal soul of priceless value, is a 
free moral agent. Once he is mature, he knows, by the grace of God and 
through the teachings of the church, right from wrong. If he chooses to do 
wrong, the conscience God has made part of, or a function of, his soul tells 
him he is guilty. He can perhaps plead physical duress, and, to a limited 
extent, ignorance, but he cannot plead total irresponsibility, cannot claim that 
he acted under cosmic necessity. He is, through his conscience, aware of the 
"civil war within the breast," aware within himself of something that drives 
him to sin, and of something within himself that urges him to virtue. Put in 
another way, he is aware of the contrast between his soul and his body, and 

41 Denis de Rougemont in his Man's Western Quest brings out well this Christian con- 
trast of this world and another, a contrast that never while orthodox or even mildly 
heterodox approaches the Eastern (Asian) denigration and denial of this world of the 
senses, and of the agon. Americans, who are put off by epigrammatic cleverness, at least 
when it is displayed on the side of the angels, should realize that M. de Rougemont, who 
writes with epigrammatic cleverness, is deeply serious as well as obviously serieux. 


A History of Western Morals 

aware that the soul ought to be the master of the body. This attitude I should 
like to put as the "minimal Western puritanism," an attitude never totally 
absent in the Christian moral outlook. 

Now this minimal puritanism is not menaced indeed, is greatly rein- 
forced by deterministic theological and metaphysical ideas that might seem 
at first sight to destroy the free moral agency of the individual. There can 
hardly be in matters of Western morals a safer induction from experience 
than the above statement. The Christian who believes that everything he does 
is foreordained by an omnipotent and omniscient God never goes on to say: 
Since God is responsible for all my thoughts and desires, he has clearly put 
into my mind my present desire to fornicate; I shall therefore fornicate, since 
God so clearly wants me to. 42 We shall have to return to this matter with 
those two great modern variants of the doctrine of determinism, Calvinism 
and Marxism. 

This minimal Christian puritanism, this basic but not radical dualism, has 
had to struggle with determined foes in the long course of Christian history. 
At the most theoretical, there have been many kinds of theological and meta- 
physical doctrines that deny, gloss over, or exaggerate the dualism of soul 
and body, Higher and Lower, such as pantheism on one hand and Manichae- 
anism on the other. Most of these intellectual deviants are present in one form 
or another in those great earliest centuries of Christian heresies. 

At a much less intellectually respectable level, Christianity has been men- 
aced in this basic moral position by the persistence of many forms of early 
("primitive") cosmic beliefs centered on the concept of wrongdoing as a kind 
of plague, a visitation from gods not really interested in human beings, a 
possession by demons, a consequence of the individual's breaking, through 
accident or bad luck, absolute rules made by powerful nonhuman forces "out 
there," controllable, if at all, only by magic and conformity. This is the 
moral attitude of Piaget's little children, and it clearly has no place for our 
concepts of individual moral responsibility. It is not as near extinction in the 
modern West as we once liked to think. It survives in many ways, from simple 
superstitions like newspaper astrology to the concept of guilt by association 
the latter not without roots in common sense, but, as we all know now, 
spreading into much deeper and less pleasant soils. 

42 My "never" above was no doubt an exaggeration. The enemies at least of the radical 
sect known as the Antinomians in the sixteenth century accused them of justifying all 
sorts of excesses by some such reasoning as the above. Still, the generalization holds 
up: somehow deterministic doctrines do not explain, let alone justify, wickedness in 
individual action. Sm is a mystery. 


The Beginnings of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition 

In modern times, however, the chief threat to minimal Christian puritan- 
ism has been a heresy as profound as any Christianity has faced, the doctrines 
that gave direction in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment to the belief in 
the natural goodness and/or reasonableness of man, and its corollary, the 
belief that evil is a product of environment partly of natural or geographic 
environment, but mostly of human or socio-economic environment. As we 
shall see, in the actual struggles of ideas this doctrine of the environmental 
origin of evil does not by any means banish the concept of wicked and 
virtuous, of morally responsible individuals. To the Marxist, the capitalist is 
a villain, responsible for the evil he does, even though he would seem to be, 
like the rest of us, the innocent product of the means of production. Indeed, 
Marxism is a "primitive" determinism which has borrowed much of Christian 
ethics. To all this we shall have to return. 


Christianity will be a constant theme for the rest of our study. To the outsider 
certainly Christianity on this earth has changed, developed, had a history. 
Here again the theme we have just discussed is apposite; there is in Chris* 
tianity a tension, a contrast, which to some has appeared a contradiction, 
Christianity, it is maintained, is a revealed religion; it is true; truth does not 
change; Christianity was in the beginning what it is today. Therefore, obvi- 
ously, Christianity has not changed and the changes historians record are 
either not real changes or they are not Christian changes (that is, they are 
temporary and in this world successful heresies) . The position briefly outlined 
above is known to Americans as Fundamentalism, and though with elaborate 
exegesis on the adjectives "real" and "Christian" it could be made acceptable 
to a wide range of Christians, in its simple form it is by no means representa- 
tive of Christian attitudes toward this world and the history which is here 
made though not in heaven, which is well beyond history. 

Here on this earth the church has a history; it has failures and successes. 
It grows, develops, for it is alive with human life. Cardinal Newman put the 
matter provocatively in his Development of Christian Doctrine, written, it is 
true, just before Darwin, but fully abreast of nineteenth-century acceptance 
of ideas of growth and evolution. Just because the church is in part human, 
it must change: " in a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live 
is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often." 43 
43 J. H. Newman, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), p. 40. 


A History of Western Morals 

These early centuries in which Christianity was fighting I use the word 
advisedly its way to success are not quite the years from which one would 
try to draw the Christian moral ideal, embodied or not. It is profoundly true 
that Jesus Christ is the Christian moral ideal, but not in the sense I am using 
that phrase in this study. Christ is, save to the extreme Unitarian or "hu- 
manist," God, and an imitatio Christi must have elements not found in simple 
moral emulation, which is always to a degree prudential. What Christ did 
during his ministry on earth is of major importance in the moral content of 
Christianity, above all, to re-emphasize what I have noted above, because in 
the balance that ministry rejects the Homeric agon and its successor for the 
beatitudes and for the greatest of these, love. But to draw the outlines of what 
Christianity brought in place of the Homeric hero, the Periclean beautiful- 
and-good, the Stoic servant of duty, we shall do better to wait until in the 
next chapter the saint and the knight of the Middle Ages appear. Both owe 
much in a sense, everything to the first Christian centuries, but they are 
not, historically, contemporaries of the martyrs and the Fathers. 

We must, however, come back briefly in conclusion to two problems of 
direct historical pertinence here. On the old question of the part played by 
Christianity in the fall of the Roman Empire we can be quite brief. Unless 
the naive anti-intellectualism which says that men's beliefs in the big and 
dignified matters of religion and ethics have no relation whatever to their 
actions, then one has to conclude that a set of beliefs which, as we have seen, 
is neatly pointed up by Tertullian's "nothing more alien to us than concern 
with the public thing" must have been one of the variables the historian will 
list and roughly measure as elements in the collapse of the Greco-Roman 
One World. But there are many, many such variables, among which Chris- 
tianity is, I think, no more than of middling importance. I do not think that 
even if the soldierly Mithraism so strong in the armies had also won over the 
civilian population of the Empire the outcome would have been very different. 
Gibbon's famous "triumph of barbarism and religion" remains what it has 
always been: good Gibbon, but poor sociology, poor history. 

The historian is always confronted with a post-mortem, and must always 
wonder whether anything could have saved the patient. I think it clear that 
what I have a bit loosely called the "civic virtues" disciplined obedience to 
law and authority, steady ways of ritual communion with one's fellows of the 
common weal, self-identification of the individual with the society, expecta- 
tion of the need for self-immolation in war, and, to use a modern instance not 
misleading, a degree of willingness to put "guns before butter" these civic 


The Beginnings of the Judaea-Christian Tradition 

virtues simply did not exist among the masses of the Roman Empire. Their 
existence, often as strong sentiments, among the few who held the armies and 
the civil services together was clearly not enough. Now Christianity was later 
to give abundant proof that it is wholly congruous with a high degree of the 
civic and military virtues; it is sufficient to mention the Teutonic Knights, the 
Cromwellian New Model Army, the help Christianity has given to the regret 
of many Christians to the modern nation-state in war. 

But and it is a big but there is a whole side of Christianity that cannot 
accept the civic and military virtues, as they get focused in this world, as 
virtues at all. Some Christians at all times are fighting pacifists, rebels against 
the political in-group, condemners of the great, the high, the mighty; some 
Christians really do not believe in rendering anything at all to Caesar, for 
they do not think there should be Caesars. We are here at a point far more 
important than the old chestnut about the role of Christianity in the downfall 
of the Roman Empire, a point to which we shall have to recur. Deepest of all 
the problems and contradictions of historical Christianity is this basic, this 
fundamental, this recurring if in this extreme form heretical Christian 
motif: the world is bad, success in it is failure, satisfaction with any part of it 
is the mark of the false, the spurious Christian. Church organization has 
mined the Christianity of Jesus Christ, theology has f alsified the gospel faith, 
spontaneous religious emotional life has been strait-jacketed by dogma, the 
Letter again and again has killed but the Spirit will not quiet down. For ye 
have the Kierkegaards always with you. 44 

A Kierkegaard in a nineteenth-century Lutheran Church which was about 
to blossom in the great German Empire had but little effect, was really no 
more than a reminder that the martyr is indeed a witness. But in the early 
years of Christianity the martyrs were rather more than forerunners of Exis- 
tentialism. The lift of the otherworldly ideal was strong, so strong that though 
we cannot "explain" the fall of the Roman Empire in Gibbon's terms, we can 
and must note that Christianity contains in it a menace to all worldly empires. 
Tamed, it is a marvelous discipline, a nurse of the civic virtues. But it is hard 
to tame, hard to keep tamed. We must return again and again to this theme, 

44 Many a great work has been built on one form or another of this Christian contrast 
or tension, for instance, Harnack's great history of dogma. The reader will find in 
Philip RiefFs excellent introduction to a modern reprinting of Harnack's own one- 
volume summary of his life work, a very succinct statement of this conflict between 
what I may perhaps too lightly call comfortable and uncomfortable Christianity in 
history. Adolf Harnack, Outlines of the History of Dogma, intr. by Philip Rieff, Boston, 
Beacon, 1957. 


A History of Western Morals 

for the ethical implications of Christianity tamed are quite different from the 
ethical implications of Christianity wild. 

The other favorite freethinker's denigration, that the noble ethical prin- 
ciples of Christianity had no effect whatever on human conduct in these first 
four centuries of the Christian era, that men continued to murder, gamble, 
whore, and generally conduct themselves in ways the freethinkers, the 
Enlightened, in the modern West disapprove, deserves short shrift. If we must 
reject the naive anti-intellectualist assertion that ethics have no effect on 
conduct, we must reject perhaps a little more forcefully and with a little 
greater effort, for we are more conditioned to it one sort of idealist's asser- 
tion that ethics ought to be synonymous with conduct, and would be, if only 
. . . well, usually because there are a few, just a few, villainous men, villain- 
ous beliefs, villainous traditions, or villainous institutions about. I shall come 
again to this difficult relation, difficult in reality as it is difficult in analysis, 
between ethics and conduct. Here it should be sufficient to note that Victo- 
rians like the freethinker Robertson gravely oversimplified the relation. In 
very brief statement: Christian ethics set very high standards, not for a priv- 
ileged few, such as the Aristotelian ethics very specifically did, but for the 
many, for everyone. We should not be surprised that the many then and now 
failed to live up to these standards. We should not be surprised that Chris- 
tianity failed to suppress immediately the cruelty of the arena, the obscenity 
of the stage, the fearful agon of imperial politics. Surely we should be sur- 
prised only if the whole Roman world had suddenly started to live up in 
practice to the Christian ethic. 

The historian, at any rate the historian with sociological leanings, may 
perhaps be permitted to ask whether a religion that does set high, in a sense 
humanly unnatural, ethical standards achieves as good a level of conduct as 
might a religion less exacting in ethics. This, and the closely related question 
of the reality of moral "progress" or "evolution," we must ultimately come 
back to, though here we may note that neither history nor sociology as social 
or behavioral sciences are yet old enough, well-enough developed, to give us 
good answers. Certainly they will not give us neat answers of the sort Robert- 
son gave, for he and his fellows actually set their standards quite as high as 
Christianity ever did and proposed to realize them with no help from God, 
nor even from that rather pale but not wholly ineffective substitute for God, 
the Greek sense of the dangers of hubris, with help only from a highly intel- 
lectualized "conscience." 

Though Christianity sets very high ethical standards go over once more 


The Beginnings of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition 

the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount those Christians 
who have the cure of souls have usually tempered the wind to the shorn lamb. 
At all times some Christians, and at some times a great many., are spurred 
we really do not know why, how, under what conditions to attempt to 
realize here on earth these lofty standards. But for the most part, the church 
of Christ, and, after the separation of East and West, the churches, have acted 
in accordance with the Christian estimate of human nature, which is not that 
men are naturally good and/or reasonable, but that they are naturally sinful, 
though through God's grace they may even here on earth conduct themselves 
rather better than they would by nature. Oddly enough, this Christian esti- 
mate of human nature was by no means inadequately stated by Alexander 
Pope, who did much to help the rationalist Enlightenment on its way to its 
heretical belief that men are by nature good. 

Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state, 
A being darkly wise and rudely great: 
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side, 
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride, 
He hangs between; in doubt to act or rest, 
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast; 
In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer, 
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err; 
Alike in ignorance, his reason such, 
Whether he thirds too little or too much: 
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus'd, 
Still by himself abus'd, or disabus'd. 45 

Such an estimate ought, in fact, to be acceptable even to the anti-Chris- 
tians and the varieties of the Enlightened who hold that man is simply an 
animal who has come out on top after a long course of organic evolution. This 
animal is clearly not or at any rate not yet a social animal in the sense 
that the bees and the ants are social animals. If we are as close to the higher 
mammals as the materialist believes we are, then Christianity, seen simply in 
naturalistic-historical perspective, is a magnificent achievement, and a highly 
suitable faith for Homo sapiens far better than an Oriental faith like Bud- 
dhism, which will not in the end tolerate or accept the animal at all, far better 
than the modern Western secular faiths like Marxism and anti-Christian 
democratic nationalism, or cosmopolitanism, which hold that animal to be 
already by nature tame, domesticated, a freethinking mammalian bee a 
paradox, in short, far more incredible than the Christian one. 

45 Alexander Pope, An Epistle on Man, Epistle n, 3-14. 


The Middle Ages 

THE MIDDLE AGES began, after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 
West, with several centuries of violence and primitive political and economic 
life, centuries that used to be called the Dark Ages. They still look dark on 
the record, though we note with less surprise than did our Victorian prede- 
cessors that to its own contemporaries the record of these Dark Ages seemed 
to reflect the obvious fact that God, the orthodox God of the Trinity, was in 
His heaven and all was as right on His earth as He had intended. Gregory of 
Tours, whose work is as much a locus classicus here as that of Tacitus for the 
early Roman Empire, is certain that God was pleased with the Prankish 
King Clovis; Gregory has, when he makes this remark, just finished recount- 
ing a series of murders and betrayals by which Clovis did the work of the 
Lord. 1 

Once again, the facts are substantially clear, and we need not spend much 
time on them. Gregory's ample record of the struggle for power in Mero- 
vingian Gaul actually, already France in the fifth and sixth centuries is 
surely no unfair sampling; but almost any of the other chronicles of the time, 
such as that in which the British monk Gildas recounts the horrid deeds of 
the pagan Anglo-Saxons, or lives of missionary saints like Boniface which 
reflect the conditions under which these devoted men labored, are full of deeds 
murders, poisonings, patricides, matricides, adulteries, incests, gluttony, 
drunkenness at least as bad as any in Western history. 2 It is true that we are 

1 Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, II, 29 (40). 

2 The reader should go direct to Gregory; the rivalry of those two remarkable women 


The Middle Ages 

once more in the presence of the familiar and unavoidable fact that the wicked 
deeds are interesting, dramatic, and get recorded; and we have also for this 
period an added factor that makes for bias. All our records are in fact 
monkish or priestly chronicles, written by firm, excited, uncritical believers 
in an order of the universe that is not at all our world of science, and social 
science. Do not ask semantic concern from Gregory and his fellows; do not 
even expect them to worry over the distinction between the normal and the 
abnormal in human nature. 

Yet there is no need to question the facts established above. The conduct 
of ruling classes in the West in these centuries is bad enough to need explain- 
ing. That explanation can hardly for us lie in the nice rationalism of recent 
generations. Lecky throws light on the nineteenth, but not on the sixth, cen- 
tury when he writes : 

It would be easy to cite other, though perhaps not quite such striking, instances of 
the degree in which the moral judgements of this unhappy age were distorted 
by superstition. Questions of orthodoxy, or questions of fasting, appeared to the 
popular mind immeasurably more important than what we should now call the 
fundamental principles of right and wrong. 3 

Lecky probably did actually believe that questions of orthodoxy were not 
fundamental questions of right and wrong. The old and dangerous figure of 
speech does better for us: these centuries are centuries of youth, immaturity, 
crudeness, barbarism. However tricky this figure may be the protagonists, 
in spite of the suddenness and frequence of death by violence, in spite of 
lamentable lack of hygienic measures, were not in years significantly younger 
than in other societies it seems unavoidable. These grown-up men and 
women do behave with a child's bright violence, a child's lack of adult sense 
of proportion, or merely sense of probable consequences, a child's cruelty 
and love of being loved. And, like children, they are romantics, always to be 
blest or damned. Like children, they know regrets, but not conscience. 

The Victorians, who did not worry much about using figures of speech, 
knew that these Germanic barbarians of the West in the Dark Ages were 
children, that theirs was a "young" society. But since most Victorian writers 
were victims of Wordsworth's ideas about childish innocence and virtue, and 
since children like Clovis and Fredegonde behaved wickedly indeed, they 

Fr6degonde and Brunehaut, as recorded in Books YE and Vffi, will leave him in no 
doubt as to their wicked conduct. The morally outraged Lecky, History of European 
Morals, Vol. n, pp. 235 ff., summarizes in detail. 
3 History of European Morals, Vol. II, pp. 242-243. 


A History of Western Morals 

faced a contradiction. Charles Kingsley, who, incredibly, was elected Regius 
Professor of History at Cambridge, wrestled with the problem in his inaugural 
lectures on the barbarian invasions. He felt as he was bound to, that the 
Germans were blond and good, the Romans dark and bad. Of course, the 
Romans corrupted the Germans, who were too inexperienced to withstand 
temptations of the "troll garden" (the Empire!). Kingsley actually calls the 
Germans children, "often very naughty children," but, of course, at bottom 
virtuous and good muscular Christians. 4 

There remains for us the puzzle of Gregory's moral attitudes, a puzzle 
we shall not solve, for if no man can know another among his contempo- 
raries, the best of historical imaginations will not take him back to a man as 
remote from us as was Gregory. Yet clearly Gregory, of an old and cultured 
Gallo-Roman aristocratic family, was no barbarian. I do not think he was 
consciously making what we call propaganda. When he wrote that Clovis was 
doing the Lord's work, he was not urging an Orwellian "doublethink," nor 
even quite the Nice Lie by which Plato sought to reconcile the inferior men of 
brass to the rule of the golden philosopher-kings. 5 He meant, if I may be 
anachronistic, that Clovis, the heathen converted, not to the devilish heresy 
of Arianism, but to God's own orthodoxy, was doing God's work in his, and 
His, world but not in the world of Mr. Gladstone and the Society for the 
Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Gregory did not, could not, have expected 
his Franks to conduct themselves as private persons other than as they did; 
he did not condone the wickedness of high politics, any more than we condone 
the weather. He accepted but did not necessarily like or approve evil, as we 
accept the weather. He was still an early Christian, for whom this dark world 
is but an entrance to another, much better, or much worse; and the neces- 
sary way to the better world, the way people ought to go, is through Christian 
orthodoxy. Gregory did not say that murder, betrayal, adultery are good; 
insofar as a priest he exercised cure of souls, he most certainly held such con- 
duct up as sin. What he did say was that the victory of the Roman Catholic 
Church here on earth is the great good. 6 

The medieval man was bound to feel and classify as normal in fact a kind 

4 See my English Political Thought in the Nineteenth Century, London, Benn, 1933, 
p. 128. 

5 The Republic of Plato, trans, by A. D. Lindsay, London, Dent, 1948, pp. 99-103. 

6 1 am aware that this argument is bound to seem casuistical to most twentieth-century 
Americans of good will; but it seems casuistical basically because, as heirs of the En- 
lightenment, we expect so much better conduct from everybody and especially from 
our rulers. 


The Middle Ages 

of melodramatic violence that we, in spite of the tabloids, in spite of our 
own prophets of doom, in spite of the H-bomb, are at heart convinced is 
abnormal, a preventable, curable, moral delinquency. Huizinga has put it 
well, not only for these early years, but for the whole of the Middle Ages, 
that most Faustian time: 

So violent and motley was life, that it bore the mixed smell of blood and of roses. 
The men of that time always oscillate between the fear of hell and the most naive 
joy, between cruelty and tenderness, between harsh asceticism and insane attach- 
ment to the delights of this world, between hatred and goodness, always running 
to extremes. 7 

Even if you find the explanation of figurative youthfulness in a society 
inadequate, the facts are there. Not the least conspicuous of the extremes of 
this society is the width of the gap between the ideal and the real, between 
profession and performance, the gap everyone notes in Gregory's lying mur- 
derer Clovis, the favorite of the God of Moses and Isaiah, the God who had 
sent his only begotten Son to redeem us all. 

Men in the Dark Ages, and to a degree in the Middle Ages and the 
Renaissance, too, faced a life of insecurity everywhere an economic order 
still at the mercy of drought, flood, inadequate transportation, inadequate 
finance, a political order that could not administer effectively any large ter- 
ritory with the economic consequence that markets, too, were small and 
"inefficient" a moral order that in the face of violence and insecurity did 
not, could not, expect men to be sober, steady, cautious, restrained, to have, 
in short, what I have called for the Romans at their best the "civic virtues." 
As the Western world grew into modernity, political order and some of the 
civic virtues followed; but the haunting fear of both this world and the next 
never quite left medieval men, and it gave their lives a tone of desperation 
not for the most part Thoreauvian quiet desperation which later historians 
in their own security have been able to find romantic, heroic, fascinating in 
vicarious experience. 

Some mark of this excess of excessiveness, then, remains throughout the 
Middle Ages; but the naivete of these early years is lost. It is a grave mistake 
to regard the Middle Ages as a perpetual childhood. Most of what the later 
medieval centuries were to fashion into the complex and subtle moral ideals 
of the saint and the knight have their immediate origins in this crudely violent 
society of the Dark Ages. At the very least, these centuries are the matrix 
out of which came the great heroes, the great achievements, of the High 
7 J. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages, p. 18. 


A History of Western Morals 

Middle Ages. They are to the High Middle Ages what the days of Moses were 
to the Jews, the days of Achilles to the Greeks. But not even the best known 
and most important of all these sources, the epic poem of the Chanson de 
Roland, took on its transmitted form this early. For us, certainly, what the 
poets later made of Charlemagne is more important than what contemporaries 
like his biographer Einhard made of him. What the twelfth and the thirteenth 
centuries were to make into the academic culture of the Middle Ages is more 
important than the rather pathetic "Carolingian Renaissance" in which the 
clerics staged the first major rally of learning since the breakdown of the fifth 
century. We may then proceed directly to the developed ideals of the knight 
and the saint. 


At the outset we run into a difficulty that can be no more than acknowledged. 
The Middle Ages regarded both the knight and the saint as complementary 
facets of a single ideal, the Christian; both were needed servants of God and of 
His order on earth. Since the spirit is in Christian formal belief loftier than 
the noblest flesh, the saint, if there must be a ranking, comes before the knight. 
The first estate of the medieval assemblies was not the nobility, but the clergy. 
Now such, if we will be moderately honest, is by no means our ranking today. 
We not only put the warrior, the politician, the judge, the captain of industry, 
the magician of science well ahead of the man of God, but we suspect that the 
Middle Ages did not really put the spiritual first, did not really rank the priest 
ahead of the noble. Yet this suspicion of ours is unjust, and leads us astray. 
We shall not get far inside the men of the Middle Ages unless we recognize 
that they "believed in" their ideal representation of the universe in a way we 
can hardly believe in ours, unless we are better Christians or more naive 
materialists than most of us are. The medieval man knew that spirit primes 
matter; he did not, of course, expect the spiritual as a rule to be crowned with 
material success here on earth that would indeed have been a transvaluation 
of values in his eyes. But he was no hypocrite; he knew that in the next world 
God would surely set matters right. 

To the knight, then, is, in theory, assigned the task of keeping this earthly 
social frame we must inhabit in good order. He is soldier, landlord, governor, 
fitting neatly into a hierarchy that reaches its top in kings and in the emperor, 
Western successors of the Caesars. And in fact the knight is the man who gets 
things done at the top, the member of what is until fairly late in the Middle 


The Middle Ages 

Ages a comparatively homogeneous ruling class. The priest, who alone at first 
could read, was needed in lay affairs from the start, for he alone could keep 
records; and the beginnings of the lawyer, the civil administrator, the entre- 
preneurial merchant, even of the efficient professional physician, go farther 
back than we used to think. Still, it is substantially true that the feudal nobility 
are the representative figures of the lay vita activa right up to that seedbed 
of our times, the fourteenth century. 8 

Now the knight was first of all a fighter. He was trained from childhood in 
the skills, in those days before gunpowder most exacting athletic skills, neces- 
sary to the fighter on horseback. It was, however, a training in one important 
respect excessively individuaEstic, even anarchic. The medieval knight was 
by no means wholly undisciplined; the physical rigors he had to live through 
and the technical skills he had to acquire involved hard practice and much 
self-denial. Moreover, the final form of Christian culture to which he was 
subjected, itself the forerunner of the duty-filled education of the Western 
resident country nobility of early modern times, was very far from irrespon- 
sible anarchism. Yet the knight at arms was never trained to fight in close and 
disciplined battle order; he was at the opposite pole from the Spartan hoplite, 
trained to perfectly timed shield-to-shield dressing with his fellows in the line 
of battle. The knight was never really melted into the soldier; he always stood 

He stood out so much that in fact he is one of the prime exemplars of 
that eternal theme in Western moral history, the agonistic competition. The 
knight seems at least as determined to excel as ever the Homeric hero was. 
His supreme virtue is honor; and though at its best the concept of honor is 
much more than this, it has always an element we nowadays cheapen in the 
term "face." Honor consists in being honored, honored by coming out on top 
and being recognized in that position. It seems odd now that anyone should 
have believed that the individual in the Middle Ages did not stand out as an 
individual, that this was an age of collective effort and submergence of the 
ego (in the old use, not the Freudian one, of the word) in some noble com- 
mon thing. 

The Middle Ages did not have the vulgar word "publicity," but they had 

8 1 cannot begin to discuss the socio-economic aspects of medieval culture in a book of 
this sort. The reader who wishes to refresh himself in these matters can start with some 
of the books suggested on pp. 30-31 of Brinton, Christopher, and Wolff, Modern Civili- 
zation, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, 1957. For the complete beginner, Will 
Durant's The Age of Faith is recommended; also W. C. Bark, Origins of the Medieval 
World, Stanford University Press, 1958. 


A History of Western Morals 

exactly what that word means. Here is Jean Froissart quoting a feudal lord 
setting the conditions of one of those public-private combats of knights, the 
"combat des Trentes," that unfortunately did not settle the business of war 
even then: "And let us right there try ourselves and do so much that people 
will speak of it in future times in halls, in palaces, in public places and else- 
where throughout the world." 9 But the point hardly needs driving home. The 
thirst for glory was surely a medieval thirst. It is familiar enough in silly 
forms, as in the career of a Richard Coeur de Lion. But do not be misled by 
our modern superstition that the successful are above illusions. Richard's 
hard-bitten and practical rival Philip Augustus of France was also a knightly 
type; his gloire was at least as far from Christ's as was Richard's. 

But the knight was a Christian. Surely was not the bitter competitiveness 
of the old male warrior society somewhat softened over the old Homeric 
standards? It was unquestionably so modified. In the first place, the code 
insisted on gentleness toward women and children, respect for the clergy, 
and for the masses at least some protection, exemption from the actual pres- 
sures of combat. If, in the second place, the code was, especially in respect 
to treatment of social inferiors, often violated, if the knight in a temper was 
capable of shocking cruelties even toward the weak, let alone toward a con- 
quered foe, he was also subject to painful and exceedingly real bouts of 
conscience-stricken horror when he woke to what he had done. As I wish 
to keep insisting, he did believe in his religion, he did know right from wrong, 
and he knew, in a way the first Prankish warriors did not, that his God pun- 
ished sin. This knowledge did not keep him from sin, but it did insure, the 
clergy aiding, frequent and sometimes spectacular repentance. The knight 
who had had a beaten enemy castrated in a fit of anger might take up the cross 
in penance, or make some religious endowment, or even do something for the 
family of the ruined man. 10 

The code, moreover, by no means existed solely in the breach. There were 
knights of impeccable physical prowess who nonetheless deserve that then-new 
word "gentleman"; they were gentle, not harsh, not forever challenging. The 

9 "Et la endroit nous esprouvons, et faisons tout que on en parle ou tamps a venir, en 
sales, en palais, en plaches et en aultres lieus par le monde." Oeuvres de Froissart, ed. 
Kervyn de Lettenhove, Brussels, 1867-1877, Vol. V, p. 292. Note that these knights want 
admiration not only from their peer groups, but from the "public." 
10 1 know of no single work in which this phase of the knightly soul, this more than 
black-and-white contrast between shocking cruelty and deeply felt repentance is better 
brought out than in Zo6 Oldenbourg's admirable historical novel The World Is Not 
Enough, New York, Pantheon, 1955. The original French has the title Argile (clay). 


The Middle Ages 

knight of Chaucer's "Knight's Tale" has become a set example, but he is real 
enough. Best of all, perhaps, is the actual Jean de Joinville, whose memoirs are 
one of the most valuable of medieval documents. Joinville was devoted to his 
king, the Louis of France who became St. Louis. He followed the king on his 
futile and outdated crusade and tells simply and quite uncritically the story 
of these bungled wars. He does not seem at all aware that they were bungled, 
at all aware that the French feudal nobility were an ill-disciplined, prideful, 
and inefficient set of fighting men. But the knightly ideal has and this is 
important very little place for the critical intellect. The normal dose of 
neurotic complaining, which goes with the knightly real life as with all forms 
of real life, had to be rather severely repressed, one guesses, with some of 
these gentlemen, and crops up most obviously in their bouts with their con- 
science, their concern with their honor, and, as we shall shortly see, in their 
extraordinary later preoccupation with courtly love. We are today so thor- 
oughly used to associating brightness with complaining that a Joinville, who 
never complains about the structure of his society, the policies of his king, 
the state of the universe, seems not quite bright. Clearly he was by no means 
unintelligent; he managed his own affairs well, he wrote simply and clearly, 
and he knew his own limitations. 

It must not be assumed that the medieval knightly ideal, to say nothing of 
knightly practice, was a static one. Over six or seven centuries from Caro- 
lingian times there is a clear process of growth, and of decline or corruption. 
That noble document of the early years the Chanson de Roland, a recited 
epic poem of one of Charlemagne's expeditions against the Moslems in Spain, 
is no contemporaneous document. It represents a long line of professional 
troubadours or minstrels who worked over traditional materials, and it is 
surely not without a touch of deliberate "primitivism." The paladins seem 
so noble, so simple, so innocent, so athletic, so damned knightly that they 
can hardly have been real. They clearly live by violence, but it is a nice clean 
violence, with no hint whatever of matters later to be associated with the name 
of the Marquis de Sade. They do God's work against the infidel, but again 
with no worries, and certainly with no trace of theological hatred. They hold 
their honor very dear indeed, far dearer than success, especially military 
success. They are lions, in fact, with no fox in them. 

As in Western Europe from the eleventh century on all the material 
indexes start on upward, as the self-sufficient feudal-manorial society grad- 
ually turns into a modern capitalist society, as the modern state, in fact, takes 
shape, lawyers, bankers, accountants, all sorts of professionals begin to take 


A History of Western Morals 

over the real work of running things; rather soon, indeed, in view of the 
modern liberal's notion that the soldier is particularly stupid and unenter- 
prising, the professionals take over even the business of war. The individual 
knight could, and did, sometimes adapt himself to these changes, especially 
in Great Britain and in the Low Countries. Still, the class of knights as a whole 
was left with nothing like enough to do and with a fine impractical set of ideals 
as to how to do it. I am here obliged to scamp a good deal of importance to the 
social and economic historian, but the upshot of a process that begins to be 
noticeable as far back as the thirteenth, "greatest of centuries," is the creation 
of a privileged class molded and trained for an occupation and status that had 
in reality ceased to exist that of feudal seigneur. But the class continued to 
enjoy its privileges; and it made use of its abundant leisure to push the knightly 
ideal into two related extravagances, the combat of the tourney and courtly 

Individual combat between champions goes back to the very beginnings 
of knighthood in the Dark Ages. A perhaps too optimistic or intellectualist 
sociological concept suggests that in their origins all institutions arise to fill a 
need, and at first do fill it well enough. At any rate, it can be argued that where 
these fights were struggles between champions of given sides in a real conflict, 
they were socially useful. Intellectually, once you accept the premises they 
were based on, trial by combat and even trial by ordeal are nice, clean-cut 
methods of deciding disputes among us poor fallible humans. If God directly 
and immediately and constantly intervenes in the daily happenings of the 
world, then obviously he does decide which of two fairly matched knights 
wins in a judicial combat, and he decides it justly. 11 

Even at the beginning, these knightly combats were in part agonistic sport 
as well as private war or a method of judicial decision and a necessary train- 
ing for the wider actual battlefield. As true law courts, in our sense, grew up, 
as with the Hundred Years' War vulgar infantry began the long process of 
making war serious and deadly once more for the many, these joustings 
came to be little more than ostentatious mock war, an organized aristocratic 
sport. As time went on the rules and conventions of the jousting got more and 
more complex, the armor got more complete, more rhinoceros-like, and the 
sport got somewhat less dangerous to life and limb, though to the very end it 

n God himself, of course, would not approve a hopelessly unequal combat, as, for in- 
stance, between a completely inexperienced fighter and a tried and mature champion, or 
as between a heavyweight and a flyweight 


The Middle Ages 

must have taken great courage to run full tilt into an oncoming opponent. 
These tourneys, as might be expected, exhibit full cultural lag, and survive 
well into the Renaissance. By a nice irony, the Cromwell family owed at least 
as much to the jousting prowess of Sir Richard Cromwell, who got himself 
knighted for his victories by Henry VIE, as to Richard's Uncle Thomas, the 
able, realistic, unscrupulous, and "modern" liquidator of monastic wealth. 12 

The knight in these tourneys, it is well known, was fighting for his lady 
love. We come now to a much more important phase of the late Middle Ages 
than the sport of jousting. Courtly love has an elaborate and, unless you are 
prepared for it, fantastically unreal literature, but it is much more than a 
phase of literary history. Courtly love is an ethics, a religion, an obsession. 
It is to the historian of Western morals one of those exceptional developments, 
one of those aberrations, in this one respect analogous to Greek pederasty, in 
which the physical facts of sex, complicated enough in themselves, get blown 
up into something huge, something that comes to take up the whole of living. 
Unlike Greek pederasty, however, courtly love is still with us, transmuted, 
popularized, seized upon by the octopus we call publicity, so altered that the 
noble lords and ladies who once pursued it would hardly recognize it. But 
Isolde still dies her love-death and not only on the operatic stage. 

We must have a brief preliminary here. Perhaps nowhere does our con- 
temporary reluctance to come out solidly with a neat formula of separation 
between normal and abnormal show up so often as in the matter of sex. Yet 
the journalist-psychologist formula that "We are all abnormal, therefore we 
are all normal" is surely great nonsense. Ethics and conduct in the field of 
sex relations are indeed most varied; study of non-Western cultures has 
driven this home firmly. Even in the West, there is, so to speak, no compact 
norm, certainly not what the Victorians thought of as a norm. Still, there is 
over the centuries a kind of wide zone of normality, a zone in which, above 
all, matters sexual do not fully occupy every moment of waking and sleeping, 
even for those privileged few who are not obliged to work for a living, a zone 
in which matters sexual are not thoroughly mixed with matters philosophical, 
religious, cosmological. In short, medieval courtly love is an aberration. 
Whether its modern variants, literary romantic love, Hollywood love, or any 
other mass-produced love, are aberrations is another, more difficult question. 

The literaiy origins of courtly love lie in the Mediterranean, and specif- 
ic Maurice Ashley, The Greatness of Oliver Cromwell, New York, Macmillan, 1958, 
p. 27. 


A History of Western Morals 

ically in the troubadours who sang in Provencal from the twelfth century on. 13 
There are, no doubt, deeper origins in Greek and Roman culture, for these 
admirable pagans clearly did not quite take sex in their stride. Aphrodite and 
Eros are an uncomfortable pair, and their suppression by Christianity was 
quite incomplete. Yet, the rise of the cult of love and of the woman the 
Woman must have had deep roots in the whole situation of the knightly 
class: its heritage of excessive masculinity, its counteracting inheritance of 
Christian ideas of love and gentleness (remember, ideas do have conse- 
quences, if not always obviously logical ones), its exasperations, frustrations, 
and, above all, its increasing divorce from the real work, the real rewards, of 
this world. These gentlemen needed the aid and comfort the ewig weiblfche, 
the Woman, can always bring. Fortunately, men can always invent her in 
their hour of need* 

The church found it useful, and probably, so great was the fashionable 
rage, necessary to adapt the Woman to its needs. Hence the cult of the Virgin, 
which, in spite of all the talk about a syncretic Isis and Earth Mother, is 
much more a medieval phenomenon than one of early Christianity. And as 
the Virgin of common conventional Christianity, the Woman was indeed 
tamed, disciplined, caught in the unconstricting net of common sense, so that 
she became almost the pure consolation that the unhappy Henry Adams 
writes of so warmly for an Adams in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. 
Our Lady, duly rendered orthodox, was a symbol quite as devoid of the meta- 
erotic complications we all know so well nowadays as of the more rugged 
sexuality of the driving flesh. She remains, in spite of Protestant and free- 
thinking reproaches, a triumph of priestly wisdom, well understood of the 

Not so the Woman of the troubadours. Through whole cycles of trans- 
muted legends, of which the Arthurian cycle, and, within that, the Tristan 
theme, can be fairly singled out as central, she made her devastating way, 
sometimes femme fatale, la belle dame sans merci, Isolde of the White Hands, 
Laura or Beatrice, in the end pure longing, pure swooning, pure death. 

13 Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World, p. 75. This is a book indispensable 
for the student of the theme. The American reader must not be put off by M. de Rouge- 
monfs cleverness; this is a serious scholarly work, though admirably compressed. M. 
de Rougemont's ingeniously established link between the Cathari of the suppressed 
Albigensian heresy and the troubadours is not essential to the rest of his book. It is one 
of those interesting scholar's affiliations of ideas, and by no means implausible; but I 
suspect there is more in the developed Tristan myth, the love of love, than a Mani- 
chaean revenge on Christian monism. So, to be fair, does M. de Rougemont 


The Middle Ages 

In dem wogenden Schwall, 
in dem tonenden Schall, 
in des Welt-Athems 
wehendem All 
hochste Lust. 1 * 

It was a twisting and devious way, above all and this is of much importance 
a way that hardly ever touched, and then never for long, the bedroom. We 
are, of course, dealing with very subtle matters. It is crude to say that courtly 
love is a deliberate playing with fire, but the fine old cliche has its uses. One 
suspects that the fire was rarely a great consuming conflagration. The chem- 
istry of human sex has pretty unheroic limits, as compared with the capacity 
of the human soul for wanting something more. 

It is not that courtly love was usually, or even often, of the kind sometimes 
miscalled "platonic." By a firm convention among the literary, it could not 
possibly be love between man and wife. It could not by an even more obvious 
convention without which, no poem run smoothly. It had to confront and 
overcome obstacle after obstacle, the more unlikely, the more unnecessary 
the obstacle, the better; it had, to paraphrase the familiar misquotation from 
Tertullian, to go on the principle of amo, quia absurdum. One may distin- 
guish two lines of development of the tradition, both present in the Roman de 
la Rose, a thirteenth-century poem put together from the work of two quite 
separate and different poets, Guillaume de Lorris, of the first half of the cen- 
tury, Jean de Meung, of the second half. The Lorris part is all allegory, a 

14 These are Isolde's last words. They are quite untranslatable thank God into so 
pedestrian a language as my English. The "Authentic libretto" of Wagner's opera as 
published by Crown Publishers, New York, 1938, makes the following inglorious at- 
tempt (p. 347) : 

In the breezes around, 
in the harmony sound 
in the world's driving 
whirlwind be drown'd 
and sinking, 
be drinking 
in a kiss, 
highest bliss! 

Our American insistence on having these operas in the original tongue is not mere 
social snobbery, nor even realistic concession to the need of hiring German singers. 
Isolde's last, last word, "Lust," is certainly not "bliss"; I suggest, in our own undignified 
American, that "superlonging" comes close. 


A History of Western Morals 

sort of symbolic and almost, but not quite, platonic investment of a lady 
whose virtue is both obstacle and reward. The part contributed by Jean de 
Meung is more clearly in what Americans thir>Tc of as the Gallic tradition; the 
language is the language of sensual enjoyment, and the denouement is not at 
all uncertain or allegorical. 

As M. de Rougemont points out, these two lines run on well into modern 
times, the first or meta-erotic one through Dante and Petrarch to Rousseau's 
Nouvelle Heloise and even to the modern French novel of love, which until 
very recently was most cerebral, if not precisely spiritual, and by no means 
"broad" or naturalistic in its details; the second or realistic one through "the 
lower levels of French literature to gauloiserie and the schools of broad 
Gallic jokes, to controversial rationalism, and to a curiously exacerbated 
misogyny, naturalism, and man's reduction to sex." 15 

For the moralist, both strains have this in common, that they represent 
a turning inward to introspection, a spiritualization or a materialization, of 
the old agonistic competitive drive, and this precisely in a society originally 
most masculine, soldierly, extraverted. Courtly love, however, by no means 
softened or extinguished the bitterness of the agon. The Woman in this tradi- 
tion is far from the Virgin of Christianity, however much the poets of the 
Middle Ages may confuse them at times. There is no doubt that over the 
medieval centuries courtly love and its accompaniments did bring to the 
European nobility refinements of manners, a kind of civility that was by no 
means without its value as a moral instrument. But in the sense I have sought 
in the previous chapter to define one essential moral strain of Christianity 
the disciplining of human competitiveness into co-operation, spiritually the 
extinction of pride and the exaltation of humility courtly love brought no 
help to Christianity, but, rather, set itself up against Christianity. Courtly love 
at the least sublimated was a sport in which there was a victor and a loser; at 
its most sublimated it was a series of mutual stimulations to a perpetual 
longing for more, more of something more, certainly, of suffering. 

E perche 'I mio marfir non giunga a riva 
Mille volte il di moro e mille nasco. 16 

Tristan and Isolde were, after all, adulterers. The device of the love potion 

is De Rougemont, Love in the Western World, p. 176. Like all such dualisms, this is an 
imperfect one in face of the complexities of human nature. Is there a scientist's concern 
with sex that fits neither category? 

ie p e trarch, Sonnet CLXIV (164). Literally, "And since my martyrdom does not come 
to end, I die a thousand times each day, am born a thousand." 


The Middle Ages 

and Brangane's fatal error seems just that a literary device, and no reflec- 
tion of a tragic destiny or necessity. Or, if the poets were appealing to a pagan 
concept of necessity, they were thereby underlining their heresy. In Christian 
terms, the lovers were sinners who never did repent sincerely, who relapsed, 
and ended in a most un-Christian, but perhaps quite Freudian, fulfillment of 
a death wish. 

It would be unfair to the medieval knightly ideal to dismiss it with these 
perversions of the jousting tourney and the tradition of courtly love. At its 
best and simplest it deserves high rank among the working ideals of this im- 
perfect world. It has suffered from the praises of the literary romantics of the 
school of when-knighthood-was-in-flower, has, like other phases of medieval 
culture, been used as a stick to beat the present with. Most of its central 
concepts as summarized in the word "chivalry" run contrary to the deep egali- 
tarianism of our own day. But it was of remarkable civilizing power. Dip, if 
only briefly, into Gregory of Tours and then into Joinville, seven centuries 
later. Something has happened that one is almost tempted to call moral 


The saint is the Christian hero. His life, too, is an agon, for the church accepts 
as real and important this world of change and struggle. The saint's struggle 
is not with his fellow men but with evil; his victory is not an athletic or artistic 
or intellectual first, but a conquest of evil in himself and in others. His glory 
is not a personal glory. His victories are God's, for the saint is always what 
the pristine sense of "martyr" implies, a witness, a living evidence, of the 
grace of God, of God's governance of the universe, which is not to be proved 
or witnessed by ordinary naturalistic means as in law, politics, or natural 
science. 17 

So much for the ideal. The real here is not so much spotted, not so much 
in obvious contradiction with the ideal, as richer in concrete detail, more 
varied, more colorful. There are many saints from the earliest centuries about 
whom in a naturalistic-historical sense we know almost nothing at all reliable; 
such lives as we do have are no more than documents for social and intel- 

1T "Saint'* is for the sacramental Christian churches, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, 
Anglican, and the like a word with an exact meaning. It refers to what one may call a 
status; in this sense even evangelical Protestants are no longer as afraid of it as they 
were. "Saint" and "saintly" have also loose vulgar uses as no more than emphatic ways 
of saying "good" or "holy," but I have the impression that this loose usage is not, in 
fact, very common. As words go in ordinary discourse, "saint" is a precise one. 


A History of Western Morals 

lectual history, full of miracles, sufferings, echoes from the primitive past. But 
of the saints real to us, and to come down no further than the High Middle 
Ages, a sampling must show a wide range of human personality, of role, even 
of Weltanschauung. From Paul himself through Jerome, Augustine, Gregory 
the Great, Boniface, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas a 
Becket, Francis of Assisi, Dominic, Bonaventura, Louis of France, to take 
only familiar names, the range is wide indeed. 

No polar dualism will work, even for these few. The contrast, suggested 
by the vocabulary of the Middle Ages themselves, between the vita activa and 
the vita contemplativa, will not stand up, even if it is interpreted not so much 
in terms of role as in terms of temperament, disposition, philosophy. St. Paul, 
as would be clear had we no more than his letters to the Corinthians, was a 
gifted organizer and Administrator. But those words to an American hardly 
suggest the mystic, the eloquent preacher, the seeker and Paul was all of 
these, and, perhaps more than these flat words suggest, a troubled soul. This 
list is full of great men of action, men who guided the church in this world 
with such skill that in the High Middle Ages it was able to challenge for a 
time, politically, and in this world, all political organizations in the West. 
Gregory simply as a lay ruler would have won from history his title of "the 
Great." Bonaventura must figure in any history of Christian mysticism, yet 
this Franciscan played an important part in the organization of his order and 
belongs also to ecclesiastical history in its narrow sense. Bernard of Clairvaux 
disliked intellectual reformers such as Abelard and fought them; he himself 
was an emotional reformer, one who has left a great mark on the history of 

There is no doubt a clear limit toward the pole of practical administrative 
skills and successes. The Christian saint as an ideal, and to an extraordinary 
extent in reality, is never merely a this-worldly manipulator of men and things. 
Our vocabulary of cliches always useful to historians lets us talk about 
captains of industry, indeed, about Napoleons of industry, but never about 
saints of industry. The anti-Christian, or merely the anti-medievalist, will 
reply that of course the respectability and prestige of the church prevents any 
such picturesque and fruitful comparison entering into our common lan- 
guage. This is no doubt true, and hardly a discredit to the church, but it does 
not exhaust the meaning of the facts. The Christian saint, no matter how well 
he has done his work in this world, has by his life given evidence that to him 
this world is not enough. 

But is the other one? It seems clear that the saint shares often a great 


The Middle Ages 

deal of the primitive Christian revulsion from, emotional rejection of, hatred 
for, this world of eating, drinking, lusting, idling, bickering, damaging, and 
conforming. Yes, you may pursue these dull formulas on until you get to the 
realities of madness and the Freudian death wish. There is all this in Chris- 
tianity, because there is all this in us Westerners. The Christian church and 
after Luther, in the long run, most of the churches have, unlike many of the 
surrogate secular churches of the Enlightenment, recognized that this dark, 
rebellious, impatient lusting after an end to lusting is there, in us, not to be 
denied but to be controlled, tamed, disciplined, perhaps even to be trans- 
muted into a kind of conformity. 

The church, in short, has had its troubles with the mystic vein in the 
Christian heritage. With the quieter, pietistic sort of mysticism the church has 
been successful indeed. There is too much historical uncertainty about the life 
and personality of Thomas Hammerken, known as Thomas a Kempis, and 
about the authorship of the Imitation of Christ for canonization of the per- 
son; but if it were possible to canonize a book, outside of the Bible, the 
Imitation of Christ would have been canonized long ago. Here the prospect 
of another world is a consolation and a steadying support in this one, no 
goad to rebellion, no stimulant to the passions. The outsider cannot be so 
sure about those two Spanish mystics of the Catholic Reformation, St. Theresa 
and St. John of the Cross. Their passions look dangerously clinical, and most 
inadequately sublimated, from the point of view of quiet, conforming Chris- 
tianity. The church has accepted as saints some of the earlier German ladies, 
such as Elizabeth of Hungary, whose mystic exaltation looks from this dis- 
tance quite compatible with the sobrieties. It has always had its doubts, how- 
ever, about Meister Eckhart, who, already in the fourteenth century, seems 
too German to be true: 

God is all things; all things are God. The Father begets me, his son, without 
cease. I say more: he begets in me himself, and in himself me. The eye with which 
I see God is the same eye with which God sees me. ... My eye and God's eye 
are one eye. 18 

Pantheism must always get short shrift from orthodox theology, for it destroys 
the whole central drama of Christ's epiphany, to say nothing of what I have 
called the minimal moral puritanism of Christianity. Aggressive, mystical 
pantheism like that of Meister Eckhart is a dangerous invitation to rebellion. 
The Germans are no doubt quite justified in regarding these German and 

* 8 Quoted from Kuno Francke, A History of German Literature as Determined by 
Social Forces, New York, Holt, 1903, p. 1 10. 


A History of Western Morals 

Dutch mystics of the late Middle Ages as precursors of their Reformation, if 
not of Kant and HegeL 

St. Francis of Assisi sets the problem of the saint and conformity in its 
sharpest focus. His life, after his conversion in the midst of a youth of worldly 
pleasure, seems to catch once more that note of primitive Christianity so 
difficult for most of us, touched as we are by the natural science, the rational- 
ism, the liberalism, the comforts, and the sentimentalities of the modern 
world, to hear at all. Francis, it is often said, really did seek to imitate 
Christ, to relive the life of Christ on earth, but, do not forget, the Christ who 
said, "There be some of them that stand here, which shall in no wise taste of 
death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom." There is in Francis 
more than a touch of the chiliast To him the imitation of Christ was not 
gentle, sober, polite conformity to the ritual, the decencies, the conventions 
of a church that had long since accepted this world as not to be greatly 
changed. It was perhaps not quite imitation of the angry Christ who over- 
threw the tables of the money-changers in the temple; it was not quite imita- 
tion of the Christ who delivered to the multitude in Jerusalem that sermon 
fit and proper foil to the Sermon on the Mount in which there resounds the 
most Christian curse "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" 19 
Francis is nearer the Christ of the marriage of Cana, of the woman taken in 
adultery, of the advice to the young man who had great possessions that he 
sell all and give it to the poor. 20 But the love Francis preached and practiced 
was not the modern humanitarian's desire that we should all be comfortable 
and therefore good here on earth. There is in Francis, though the modern 
sentimentalist must fail to see it, the vein of iron that runs through all Chris- 
tianity, at least until modern times, a vein that has sources in the Stoa as well 
as in Sinai. Franciscan poverty was not a form of enjoyment, not even, thougji 
the doubter with a smack of psychology will continue to doubt, a perverse 
and masochistic form of enjoyment. Francis was in fact a very medieval man, 
one very hard for a modern to understand. 

Poverty was to the first Franciscans not merely abstention from the com- 
forts and prestige and all the rest that goes with what we call wealth; it meant 
also abstention from the kind of possessions Francis abhorred at least as much 
as wealth, that is, learning, theological skills, all the possessions of the intel- 
lect One suspects that Francis himself had he lived would have been even 
more indignant at the reputation of his order for learning than at its great 

19 Matthew 21: 12; 23: 13 ff. 

20 John 2:1; 8:3; Matthew 19:21. 


The Middle Ages 

material wealth, both achieved in a short generation after the saint's death. 
The wealth was, after all, a corporate wealth, and, as individuals, members 
of the mendicant orders did not often fall into worldly self-indulgence, as had 
some of the earlier monks; but the reputation of a Robert Grosseteste or of 
his pupil Roger Bacon, both great scholars, both precursors of modern natural 
science, was an individual reputation. 

Perhaps a profounder and more useful polarity in medieval sainfliness 
than that of action and contemplation would be one between the intellectual 
and the anti-intellectual. The two terms are strained by contemporary abuse; 
and they are, of course, exceedingly imprecise. But they will do as well as 
any to indicate the gap between a Thomas Aquinas or a Bonaventura on one 
hand and a Bernard or a Francis on the other. There is a strain in Christianity, 
clear in much of what our sources tell us of Christ himself, that distrusts the 
ratiocinative, analytical, organizing, conforming, and also disturbing, but 
wrongly, devilishly, disturbing intellect. The Christian of this strain distrusts 
the intellect as the basic seducer, the serpent in Eden, the goad to a flesh that 
might otherwise accept peace. This strain is clear in medieval Christianity, 
clearest of all in the greatest of its saints, Francis of Assisi. 

The most striking, and to some no doubt most painful, of the contradic- 
tions of sainfliness lies in the fact the living saint is almost always a dis- 
turber, who disturbs the comfortable, well-behaved, in our ordinary sense of 
words by no means wicked or perverse, conformist; and the dead saint, duly 
canonized, is taken up into the very order of imperfection his life had pro- 
tested against. You may soften the contradiction, if your temperament permits 
you to do so, by insisting that the saint's own real life is such that even his least 
worthy worshiper cannot be wholly untouched by this holiness, this leaven. 
But I do not thinV you can challenge the fact that the living saint is no merely 
conventionally good man, no humanitarian reformer, no "liberal" complainer, 
not even a good practicing Christian, but a man who will not have this world 
at all at the price most of us pay for our share of it. 


The note of distrust of the conclusions arrived at by the established, conform- 
ing mind is also clear in the less heroic field of ordinary medieval ethics. In 
this age of extremes one would expect to find examples of return to primitive 
simplicities, dislike of the learned, dislike of those in power, dislike of wealth 
and privilege; and so one does. The rebellions and the heresies from the tenth 


A History of Western Morals 

century on, from the Pataria through the Waldensians and the Albigensians 
to the revolting peasants of the later Middle Ages, within the church itself 
in the waves of reform from Cluny to the coming of the friars all these lively 
conflicts are reflected in the political and ethical theory of the time. The range 
of this writing is great, and some of it sounds like a muted version of the great 
religious repudiation of this pharisaical world we have heard before. 

But one may risk a generalization for the High Middle Ages: the normal 
ethical tone is not set by the rebel, but by the conformist; it is not an ethics 
that appeals to the heart against the head, but quite the opposite, a very 
rationalist ethics; it is not heaven-storming, but moderately and modestly 
worldly; it is, substantially, the ethics expounded for the learned by Thomas 
Aquinas, and brought to the many from countless pulpits and confessionals 
and even in the sculptures and stained glass of the churches, and to a degree 
in the written word, for the High Middle Ages were not by any means wholly 
illiterate outside the clergy. 

We can here touch but very generally on this standard medieval Christian 
ethics. But first of all we must note that it is an ethics centered on a Christian 
cosmology and theology as yet untouched by natural science, still strong in 
its literal theism. God was so real to the medieval man that, if the word could 
be stripped of its many unfavorable connotations, one would have to say that 
his was an anthropomorphic God. Here, for instance, is Aquinas himself: 

If we compare murder and blasphemy as regards the objects of those sins, it is 
clear that blasphemy, which is a sin committed directly against God, is more 
grave than murder, which is a sin against one's neighbour. On the other hand, if 
we compare them in respect of the harm wrought by them, murder is the graver 
sin, for murder does more harm to one's neighbour, than blasphemy does to God. 
Since, however, the gravity of a sin depends on the intention of the evil will, 
rather than on the effect of the deed, as was shown above (I.-IL, Q. LXXIIL, 
A.8), it follows that, as the blasphemer intends to do harm to God's honour, 
absolutely speaking, he sins more grievously than the murderer. Nevertheless 
murder takes precedence, as to punishment, among sins committed against our 

This sounds strange, for our own rationalism would put God far above so 
human a concern as honor. 21 

But do not be put off by such instances. If you turn to Aquinas on private 

21 St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II.2.13.3. 1 quote this largely for the sake of 
the thoroughly medieval phrase "God's honour," but the whole passage is a fine example 
of Aquinas at his most Whiggish. You do on this earth have to crack down harder on 
murder than on blasphemy. 


The Middle Ages 

property, he will surely not sound at all strange. Private property, he finds, is 
not originally an institution of natural law, but has been added to natural law 
by human reason working on the materials given by long experience of human 
society. It is justified by its utility; a person will take care of his own in a way 
he will not take care of things not his own this is just a fact. Such ownership 
is subject of course to Christian duties of charity; private property must be 
in part shared property. 22 And so throughout, Aquinas is always sweetly 
reasonable, always willing to compromise where compromise seems to him 
required by nature and human nature, never, strangely enough in a medieval 
man, advocating the excessive gesture of rebellion or of defiant Tory con- 
formity to an idealized past. 

There are certain major assumptions of this medieval ethical orthodoxy. 
There is, as in all orthodoxies, a clear line between right and wrong, an 
authority that draws that line. In matters of faith the church is that authority. 
We know, for instance, that the doctrine of the Trinity is true, that we must 
believe it, because faith is above questioning. But in the immense majority 
of problems this life presents us with, we must judge in accordance with our 
reason, which is guided by natural law. Men do, however, most obviously 
differ in their use of reason to find the right decision in concrete cases. Is there 
not still a problem of authority? Who rightly interprets natural law? 

Modern students of the Middle Ages have answered this to us, certainly 
key question variously. The hostile anticlerical from the Enlightenment on 
has tended to believe that the whole fabric of medieval philosophical devotion 
to natural law was no more than a device to fool the many, to consecrate 
what to them was the real ethical principle of the Middle Ages, that what the 
church says is right. We need not take so partisan a position to admit that in 
accordance with the ethical conservatism of the time, there was in fact a great 
reliance on established practice, on what had been done time out of mind, on 
consensus and common agreement, on what most men would have thought to 
be "natural." All this is something very different from the arbitrariness and 
unreason that the Enlightenment, and the Renaissance before it, loved to 
attribute to the Middle Ages. 

What the Middle Ages called a "just price," for instance, was not an 
arbitrary one in the sense that it was dictated by the will of any individual 
or even of any small group. The just price was in theory that price which 
enabled the worker to live at his accustomed standard of living while he was 

22 Summa Theologica, Hii.66. 


A History of Western Morals 

working on the goods so priced, and make his customary profit. In practice 
it was no doubt the price that had prevailed in the trade in that particular 
market, a price always threatened by the endemic inflationary tendencies of 
the growing medieval economy, a price always defended as the "natural" 
price. Adam Smith's price, set in theory by the naked play of supply and 
demand at a given moment, would have seemed to the medieval man to be 
an arbitrary and unjust price, one that might be too low to guarantee to the 
laborer the fruits of his labor. 

The medieval man never thought of this order of nature as arbitrary 
at least not in our sense 3 which implies an unjust and preventable arbitrariness. 
He knew God could change everything root and branch, but he did not really 
expect God to do so. On the whole, medieval man was no chiliast, and he did 
not think God would intervene in any upsetting way with the order of nature. 
(God did, of course, constantly intervene in specific normal ways, guided 
nature, so to speak, which is why prayer, reasonable prayer, duly accompanied 
by works, is effective.) The world as it now stood was far from perfect, but 
neither was it unworthy of God and man. It had gone on a long time, and we 
knew a good deal about how to get along in it. 

In fact, the medieval was an Age of Faith in a somewhat different sense 
from the theological one we usually give the familiar formula. This was the 
last time in the West when most men believed in a quite literal sense in what 
we call the status quo; or, put negatively, and perhaps to us more clearly, 
these men did not believe it possible by planning, inventing, research, to alter 
in any important way the sum total of existing "arrangements," culture, institu- 
tions, ways of getting things done. Piecemeal, local change, yes; but even then 
the medieval mind, as in the familiar process of development of statutory law, 
liked to think of this as a finding, even a rediscovery, not a making, of a law 
already there, somewhere, where the over-all plan exists, at bottom, of course, 
in the mind of God. All this is even better illustrated by the almost universally 
accepted metaphor of society as an organism in which each individual, or, 
better, each group, had its appointed place and function. The rulers, lay and 
clerical, are the soul, the mind; the soldiers are the heart; the workers are 
the belly, and so on. This is one of the oldest of Western political metaphors. 
That the belly is as necessary as the head is crystal clear, but it is also clear 
that the belly has not the same adornments as the head, the same position as 
the head. The lesson is obedience, acceptance of one's earthly lot, acceptance 
of the order of rank of society. 

Yet the record of the Middle Ages is by no means one of general obe- 


The Middle Ages 

dience and conformity, and certainly not one of unchanging ways. We now 
know well that from the eleventh century on the medieval economy was a 
dynamic one, that all the material indexes start on upward, that not even 
the Black Death really stopped them; and, of course, we know that in fact 
civil disorders, risings of the underdog, the discontented, were common. It 
is true that there is by no means general agreement among our medieval 
specialists as to the socio-economic history of the late Middle Ages, especially 
of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. 23 But in the balance it is clear that 
there were important and disturbing changes, some of them making in the 
long run at least for economic progress, and most unsettling to those of steady 
ways, to ordinary medieval men, no matter what their social class. This is the 
familiar paradox once more, the gap, greater in the Middle Ages than is usual 
even in the West between the ideal and the real, the profession and the 
practice. But the paradox itself here needs a bit of explanation. 

First, and this is particularly true of earlier rebellions, there is the revo- 
lutionary ingredient in Christianity. I have tried to make clear that primitive 
Christianity was not originally a "social gospel" of the full dinner pail and 
comfort for all. But the New Testament does have eloquent passages against 
the rich, the powerful, the successful. It is easy enough to turn much of 
Christianity from mere repudiation of this world to its alteration, alteration 
in something like the sense that the phrase "social revolution" carries for us 
today. Moreover, even when, through triumph of church organization, con- 
solidation of dogma, assimilation to the world of war and politics, Christianity 
had become a prop of the established order, there remained in its cultural 
tradition an irreducible minimum of ethical idealism, a feeling that cruelty, 
pride, injustice are not necessarily in the order of nature. There was no reason 
why Zeus or Jupiter should be sorry for slaves; there was every reason why 
Jesus Christ should refuse to back up a wicked baron or a corrupt bishop. 
There is, as Nietzsche saw, almost as much moral dynamite in Christianity 
as in socialism. 

Second, in no mere perfunctory bow to the Marxist interpretation of 
history, we may note that the very success of the medieval synthesis in 
enabling men to live and work together in comparative peace and good order 
contributed to the overthrow of medieval ethical conservatism. It is the full, 
or at least partly full, belly that revolts against the ignoble, if essential, role 
the head and the heart have combined to give it. Or to put the matter less 

23 On this see the Cambridge Economic History, Vol. H, ed. Postan and Habbakuk, 
Cambridge, England, 1952. 


A History of Western Morals 

metaphorically, a reasonably widely accepted feeling that a given society is 
in fact a just one, a society in which co-operation and integration are normal, 
expected, and conflict abnormal, or not really there, simply cannot last in a 
complex dynamic society such as Western Europe had already begun to be 
by the High Middle Ages. The fact of change cannot be forever concealed, 
even by legal fictions; and change means conflict in this real world, if not in the 
world of ethical, or of economic, theory. When the feudal baron and his lady 
really were the heads of a kind of expanded Great Family on the almost self- 
sufficent manor, patriarchal theories, metaphors of shepherd and flock, and a 
lot more pleasant notions would do very well; when the baron and his lady 
had become absentee landlords, when the steward had become in fact an 
entrepreneur in the production of wool, and the serfs had become free 
peasants with money incomes they could hope to increase, when, in short, the 
Great Family had broken up, it was not possible to go on forever insisting 
that the father was still a patriarch. The medieval ethical synthesis, attractive 
though it was, and still is, to the wistful who want the lion to lie down with 
the lamb, could not last. 


To discuss the actual conduct of medieval men and women we do well to take 
their own picture of society with its first, second, and third estates. Inevitably, 
we know more about the leaders in each group and more about the ordinary 
members of the clergy and the nobility than about the common folk. We by no 
means know enough in terms of statistics and the like to be at all confident 
about our generalizations. But we can hazard something. 

The record of the clergy is extraordinarily varied and uneven, exceedingly 
difficult to summarize in a short chapter like this. I trust the reader will for- 
give me if I make the dull and Whiggish remark that the record seems to me 
by no means as bad as most freethinking and Protestant historians have made 
it out to be, nor quite as good as some Catholic admirers of all things medieval 
feel that it has to be. Take at random concrete cases. As an individual bad 
example, Gregory of Tours has an abundance; perhaps the Abbot Pagulf will 
do. Pagulf, after trying in vain to get rid of, indeed to murder, the husband 
of a woman he coveted, slipped into the house one night in the husband's 
absence, and got what he wanted. The injured husband took a brutal revenge, 
burning up house, abbot, and wife, but the right did not always triumph so 
clearly in those rough days. 24 As a group example, almost any of the chapter 
24 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, VIE, 19. 


The Middle Ages 

visitations collected and translated by Coulton will do. Here is one for Rouen 
cathedral in 1248. 

We visited the Chapter of Rouen, and found that they talk in choir contrary to 
rule. The clergy wander about the church and talk in the church with women, dur- 
ing the celebration of divine service. The statute regarding the entrance [of lay 
folk] into the choir is not kept. The psalms are run through too rapidly, without 
due pauses. The statute concerning going out at the Office of the Dead is not kept. 
In begging leave to go forth, they give no reason for so going. Moreover, the 
clergy leave the choir without reason, before the end of the service already begun; 
and, to be brief, many other of the statutes written on the board in the vestry are 
not kept. The chapter revenues are mismanaged [male tractantur]. 

With regard to the clergy themselves, we found that Master Michael de Bercy 
is ill-famed of incontinence; item, Sir Benedict, of incontinence; item, Master 
William de Calemonville of incontinence, theft, and manslaughter; item, Master 
John de St. L6, of incontinence. Item, Master Alan, of tavern-haunting, drunken- 
ness, and dicing. Item, Peter de Auleige, of trading. Master John Bordez is ill- 
famed of trading; and it is said that he giveth out his money to merchants, to 
share in their gain. [19 March 1248] 25 

It is, however, easy enough to balance these instances of vice with in- 
stances of virtue. In Gregory's own day many a missionary to the heathen 
north and east gave the example of devoted Christian zeal. The accounts of 
the lives of saints are often, in our eyes, naive and historically unreliable, 
but the residue of saintliness is there, not to be denied. Even the freethinkers, 
though they recoil in horror from the earliest Eastern hermit monks, have 
good things to say about Western monasticism in the first years of the Bene- 
dictine rule. These monks did live arduous lives of real labor on the land, in 
the library, in the missionary field. Nor can even the hostile observer question 
the reality of the successive waves of renewal that restored the discipline and 
the ardor of Western monasticism through these centuries. Whenever monastic 
life seemed to have gone the way of all flesh, when monks had become well- 
fed, lazy, lustful, worldly, there was certain to be a reform, a renewal, a new 
order or a reformed old order, right on down to the Reformation. 

Even Coulton, an admirably trained professional historian who somehow 
failed to fall in love with his subject, and who managed to collect a whole 
series of damaging pieces, nonetheless occasionally brings in a favorable one, 
even, at times, an instance that has a touch of humor. Here is one from the 
thirteenth-century Franciscan preacher Berthold of Ratisbon: 

25 Coulton, Life in the Middle Ages, Vol. I, pp. 95-96. 


A History of Western Morals 

When I was in Brussels, the great city of Brabant, there came to me a maiden of 
lowly birth but comely, who besought me with many tears to have mercy upon 
her. When therefore I had bidden her tell me what ailed her, then she cried out 
amidst her sobs: "Alas, wretched girl that I am! for a certain priest would fain 
have ravished me by force, and began to kiss me against my will; wherefore I 
smote him in the face with the back of my hand, so that his nose bled; and for 
this as the clergy now tell me, I must needs go to Rome." Then I, scarce with- 
holding my laughter, yet speaking as in all seriousness, affrighted her as though 
she had committed a grievous sin; and at length, having made her swear that she 
would fulfill my bidding, I said, "I command thee, hi virtue of thy solemn oath, 
that if this priest or any other shall attempt to do thee violence with kisses or em- 
braces, then thou shalt smite him sore with thy clenched fist, even to the striking 
out, if possible, of his eye; and in this matter thou shalt spare no order of men, for 
it is as lawful for thee to strike in defence of thy chastity as to fight for thy life." 
With which words I moved all that stood by, and the maiden herself, to vehement 
laughter and gladness. 26 

We may risk a general summary. There is, especially for the higher clergy, 
the bishops and the abbots, a long and deep trough in the Dark Ages, the 
years of the fighting prelates, fighting with their battle-axes alongside then: 
lay cousins, years when the higher clergy were assimilated almost wholly to 
the political ruling classes, years no doubt of maximum sexual license for the 
higher clergy. They are the years when, for the lower clergy, sheer ignorance 
and the example of their betters kept them also in a trough. Clerical concubi- 
nage was very nearly transformed, for the lower clergy at least, into legitimate 
marriage. Then in the tenth and eleventh centuries there came one of the most 
remarkable waves of reform, of moral renewal, in the Western record, a wave 
comparable in depth and force, though in many ways very different from, the 
reforms that followed on the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. This medieval 
reform, centering in the tenth-century reformed Benedictine foundation at 
Quay, seems clearly to have been a reform initiated and carried through as a 
reform, not a revolution, by a self-conscious and mainly clerical minority 
which by the eleventh century had captured the papacy. But this was also a 
reform movement that had to win over, if not the millions of serfs and 
peasants, at least the many thousands of the ruling classes. Our sources are 
certainly inadequate for a study of what we may nonetheless call "public 
opinion" in the eleventh century. But we can be sure that the Cluniac move- 
ment was one of the first in a long line of modern Western efforts to achieve 
through propaganda, pressure groups, electioneering intrigue, if you like 
the kind of social change we may unblushingly call "voluntary." 

26 Coulton, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 125, quoting Berthold of Ratisbon, Lib. H, Chap, xxx, p. 


The Middle Ages 

It was a successful reform. It did not achieve anything like what its most 
dent proponents for example, the monk Hildebrand, as pope, Gregory 
II may well have wanted. Some of the Cluniacs wanted a European society 
tied by the Church of Rome, a true theocracy; and though there have been 
iefly and locally pretty complete theocracies in the West Geneva, Boston, 
iraguay the whole temper of Western life has been against such rule. 
>urred by the partial success of the reform, the later medieval popes went on 
assert claims to supremacy on earth, but by 1300 they had clearly failed. 
r e may guess that some of the reformers hoped to transform men and women 
ght here on earth into what Christian ethics wanted them to be, but we can- 
)t be sure of this, as we can for many later secular reformers. 

What the Cluniac reformers did achieve was a good deal. They established 
srical celibacy as the law of the church, a law certainly violated again and 
jain, but always, since, not only a sin but a scandal. They helped along the 
ocess of disentangling the clergy from the full play of the complex feudal 
stem, though they by no means succeeded in making complete separation of 
erical and feudal persons. They helped initiate, in the Peace of God and the 
ruce of God, some social control of the private warfare among the second 
tate, and thus, in a very real sense, helped found the modern state. Against 
e sin of simony they were at least as successful as against the sin of clerical 
continence; simony was never again as open, nor as common, save in the 
orst days of the Renaissance popes, and then largely in Italy alone and at 
e top of the hierarchy. In short, the Cluniac movement raised, if only what 
our day we might think of as "a few percentage points," the standards not 
dy of clerical, but of lay conduct. It did not make over human nature, but 
did make certain extreme forms of misconduct unfashionable. 

There was, however, a lapse. By the early sixteenth century the clergy over 
ost of Europe had once more fallen into a trough. The prelate with the 
itfle-ax was gone forever, and so, too, in its pristine form, was the feudal 
)bility. The temptations that beset the higher clergy in the late Middle Ages 
sre perhaps simpler than those of the ninth century; they were chiefly 
captations of the flesh in a society, judged by previous standards, with a 
nsiderable margin of wealth for conspicuous consumption among the pos- 
ssing few, a society of fashionable sophistication, indeed, as Huizinga's 
asterpiece Waning of the Middle Ages has made clear to us all, a society 
' self-conscious preoccupation with all sorts of things one need not be a 
>rokin or a Toynbee to recognize as signs of cultural decadence. Here is a 
>od sample: 

the fifteenth century people used to keep statuettes of the Virgin, of which the 


A History of Western Morals 

body opened and showed the Trinity within. The inventory of the treasure of the 
dukes of Burgundy makes mention of one made of gold inlaid with gems. Gerson 
saw one in the Carmelite monastery at Paris; he blames the brethren for it, not, 
however, because such a coarse picture of the miracle shocked him as irreverent, 
but because of the heresy of representing the Trinity as the fruit of Mary. 2T 

Here, surely, in this almost Hegelian world of ours in which an excess seems 
to breed its opposite, is one of the reasons for Reformation puritanism. 

I have perhaps said enough about the second estate under the heading of 
the moral ideal of the medieval knight. I have there hardly overstated the 
extent to which in its earlier days this class was a professional fighting class, 
the most undisciplined in Western history, and at least as unintellectual, or 
anti-intellectual, as the Spartiates. Here is Bertram de Born, an average 
knight, complaining about the clerically sponsored Truce of God, which 
sought to stop private feudal warfare between Wednesday evening and Mon- 
day morning, and on holy days: 

Peace does not suit me; war alone pleases me. I am not at all concerned over 
Mondays or Tuesdays. Weeks, months, years all that is to me a matter of in- 
difference. At all times, I want to destroy [perdre] anyone who does me harm. 28 

These early and deadly private wars were modified into the jousting tourney 
and the duel, both a bit less murderous; still, over the later centuries there 
can be no doubt that the class, in part deprived of its roots in the soil and 
its local governing functions, committed suicide hi wars such as the English 
Wars of the Roses. It and its successors who were not actually in very large 
part its descendants the European aristocracies of early modern times, never 
wholly lost an anti-intellectualist stamp, in part imprinted by a genuine rivalry 
for power with the clergy, the intellectual class. As late as the sixteenth 
century, we find English gentlemen protesting vigorously against the new 
fashionable education at Oxford, Cambridge, and the public schools, where 
their sons were actually studying Greek and Lathi like any narrow-chested, 
nearsighted clerk, instead of whacking away at each other on the exercise 
ground. 29 

The second estate had, it must be admitted, some of the virtues the 
romanticist cherishes in the knights of old. They were not, as ruling classes 
go, addicted to the corruptions of the rich, perhaps in part because they were 

27 Huizinga, Waning of the Middle Ages, p. 140. 

28 Bertram de Born, cited in Villemain, Cours de Litt6rature Fran9aise. Tableau de la 
Litterature du Moyen Age, Paris, Didier, Libraire-Editeur, 1850, Vol. I, p. 103. My 

2 Fritz Caspari, Humanism and the Social Order in Tudor England, Chicago, Univer- 
sity of Chicago Press, 1954, pp. 136ff. 


The Middle Ages 

never for the most part exceedingly rich. All Europe was poor in the earlier 
medieval centuries, and as Europe grew rich it was not the knights, but the 
new merchant and capitalist classes, and their helpers in the new model 
monarchic state, who got most of the spoils. The knight was, as a businessman, 
inhibited by the rules and standards of his order, and by an upbringing that 
stifled any inventiveness he may have been born with. The class was sexually 
promiscuous enough, for this was a sexually promiscuous time, but it was 
comparatively free from the not unusual addiction of a military class to 
homosexuality a practice, moreover, very vigorously condemned in Chris- 
tian ethics. Many of its members were later sidetracked into the wastes of 
courtly love. Even its sense of honor was not quite what the nineteenth- 
century admirers thought it was. Like all sporting classes, it was taught respect 
for the rules of the game, but it was also taught by life to want very much to 
win. One feels it to have been closer to current American sporting ethics than 
to that, say, of the British Victorian upper classes, who really almost did, 
sometimes quite did, put virtue above winning. 

Toward their inferiors the second estate were by no means the insufferable 
tyrants later democratic propaganda, mostly stemming from the French 
revolutionists, made them out to have been. They were certainly not human- 
itarians or egalitarians; they were full of pride of rank, and contemptuous of 
commoners, especially of successfully wealthy commoners. But and this 
needs to be hammered home to Americans they were constrained by habit, 
by unthinking respect for custom, by lack of enterprise, if by nothing else, 
from what the Marxist means by "exploitation" of the lower classes. By the 
High Middle Ages, chattel slavery had almost vanished from Western Europe; 
commoners, including many of the peasants who formed the bulk of the 
third estate, had the juridical status of freemen, and they were protected by 
what is one of the firmest marks of the medieval mentality, respect for status, 
for the established order. All this is less than Lord and Lady Bountiful 
though such existed; but it is a great deal more than the wicked seigneur, 
fattening on the blood of his serfs, enjoying his right of first night with their 
brides. 30 

I do not wish to exaggerate in my effort to redress the balance upset by 

30 Such did not exist, certainly not in law, as modern research has made clear. The jus 
primae noctis is probably the invention of some French eighteenth-century political 
propagandist of talents worthy of Madison Avenue. In real Western life, the men of a 
privileged class are rarely as enterprising in rape or seduction of women of classes in- 
ferior to them as our modern class-warfare-conscious tradition makes them out to have 
been, if only because the women of their own class are usually too exacting of their 
energies. I trust this remark is not a mere obiter dictum inspired by the spirit of our 
own age. 


A History of Western Morals 

our eighteenth-century democratic belief that an aristocracy of privilege is 
not only wicked but abnormal. Clearly there were oppressive landlords in the 
Middle Ages, as there were rebellious peasants, disputatious peasants, 
peasants addicted to moving boundary stones on the sly. Certainly the rosy 
picture of medieval society painted by the great literary rebels against nine- 
teenth-century industrialism, a Carlyle, a William Morris, is no piece of 
realism. I am here maintaining, as often in this book, no more than the dif- 
ference of a "few percentage points" in the sum total, a difference made by, 
a consequence of, at a minimum a reflection of, a widespread world view, an 
expectancy based on a generally held interpretation of the nature of man and 
the universe. The medieval second estate, though it numbered grasping, cruel, 
above all, unrestrained individuals, displays over its whole history at the very 
least the decencies of an unprogressive class. 

The third estate in the Middle Ages was almost wholly a peasantry, though 
by the end of the period there was a small but well-developed urban middle 
class, especially in Western Europe. Most of the broad generalizations we 
shall risk about the actual conduct of the masses are, however, roughly true 
even of the higher classes. Ordinary folk in the Middle Ages were by no means 
puritans. There were gusts of revivalism, sometimes in unlikely places, in 
which the laymen were swept up into forswearing the ways of the world. Of 
these the best known is the brief Florentine madness under Savonarola at the 
end of the fifteenth century, but in these last centuries there were many less 
excessive religious excitements throughout the West. And always the masses 
held what they deemed genuine saintly otherworldliness in enthusiastic 
admiration. Still, there is no gainsaying the earthiness, the coarseness, some- 
times the exuberance, of the common people of the Middle Ages. Folk tales, 
such as the French fabliaux, and their reflection in such a literary man as 
Chaucer, the details of many of the carvings of medieval churches, the many 
complaints the preachers make of the evils of dancing and feasting, all mount 
up to impressive evidence* But you can see this best in anything Breughel 
painted. It is true the actual painting is later than the medieval period, but 
these peasants at their quite unspiritual tasks and pleasures are surely 
unchanged from their medieval predecessors. 

Bastardy was certainly not uncommon. We do not have adequate sta- 
tistics; it may well be that the ratio of illegitimate to legitimate births was 
in many parts of Europe ho greater than it was to be in the nineteenth century. 
But the attitude toward bastardy was very different from that of the nine- 
teenth century. The Christian sacrament of marriage, the whole structure of 


The Middle Ages 

family law, made the status of the bastard inferior; but men found something 
amusing in the fact that nature had overcome the priest. For the layman, at 
least, sexual continence was hardly an obligation, and the remedy for frigidity 
or indifference in a wife was clear and easy. Again, there are no good 
statistics, but it does not seem that this far back there exists much difference 
between the hot-blooded South and the cold-blooded North. Bastardy was 
no disgrace in the Italy of Leonardo da Vinci, but neither was it a necessary 
trauma in the Netherlands of Erasmus. And Erasmus was actually a priest's 

In fact, in the eternal warfare between Christianity and the natural animal 
man, Christianity among the masses in the Middle Ages had to settle for what 
must look to the Christian ethical idealist who, since the eighteenth century, 
has frequently been an enlightened freethinker as a pretty empty victory 
of mere prestige. Medieval anticlericalism, which is genuine anticlericalism 
from within the church, not the anti-Christianity that often goes by the name 
of anticlericalism in modern Catholic countries, is evident from the slightest 
acquaintance with the age. The priest was for many commoners the agent of a 
great power indeed, a God whose existence they never doubted, but who 
somehow was not quite the loving God of Christian sentiment. To avoid the 
errors of the traditional rationalist freethinker is this matter of medieval faith 
those of a Harry Elmer Barnes, for instance I shall have somewhat 
reluctantly to use the language of popular psychology, which is no doubt full 
of its own errors: there is a deep-seated ambivalence in the sentiments of the 
medieval masses toward all the priest stands for. 

The facts are there. I cite from Coulton once more: 

In certain districts I have seen men when they meet priests [the first thing in the 
morning] forthwith crossing themselves, saying that it is an evil omen to meet a 
priest. Moreover, I have heard on sure authority that in a certain town of France 
wherein many of all conditions died, men said among themselves, "This deadly 
plague can never cease unless, before we lay a dead man in his grave, we shall 
first cast our own parson into the same pit!" Whence it came to pass that, when 
the priest came to the edge of the grave to bury a dead parishioner, then the 
countryfolk, men and women together, seized him, arrayed as he was in his 
priestly vestments, and cast him into the pit. These are inventions of the devil and 
demoniacal illusions. 31 

A simple partial explanation is obvious. The priest inherited from ages and 
ages of magic and of religious belief heavily weighted with fear of utterly 

si Life in the Middle Ages, Vol. I, p. 35, no. 15. These are two other instances, less 
extreme and more amusing, cited on these same pages. 


A History of Western Morals 

inhuman forces. The priest was a magician, but also a man, and as a man he 
might not really be in control of these forces. Better cross yourself . . . . 

The age was fully as superstitious as its detractors have pictured it. Once 
more, there is clearly an irreducible minimum of superstition, taken in its 
widest sense, throughout Western history. It can be argued not proved 
that one kind of superstition slips into the place of a discarded superstition, 
that the sum total of superstition is roughly constant in our brief Western 
history. But the range and variety of superstitions in the Middle Ages was 
certainly great. The order of nature was no succession of scientifically estab- 
lished uniformities, but a colorful, only partly predictable, melodrama mixed 
with comedy. Nothing was untouched by the elaborate network of associa- 
tions that composed the Christian tradition, swollen by hundreds of local 
pagan survivals. A whole book could be written about the superstitions 
centering on Friday, that dark day of Christ's suffering which was yet the 
bright day of our redemption. It would take volumes to record what happened 
to the relics of saints, and much of the record would be black. 

These superstitions, or, if you prefer, these naive folk beliefs, do often 
show the freshness, the touching innocence of the child on its good behavior, 
the engaging immediacy of symbolism lovers of the Middle Ages dwell upon. 
Here, for the sake of fairness, is one of these: 

A certain lay-brother of Hemmenrode was somewhat grievously tempted; where- 
fore as he stood and prayed he used these words, "In truth, Lord, if Thou de- 
liver me not from this temptation, I will complain of Thee to Thy Mother!" The 
loving Lord, master of humility and lover of simplicity, prevented the lay- 
brother's complaint and presently relieved his temptation, as though He feared to 
be accused before His Mother's face. Another lay-brother standing behind the 
other's back smiled to hear this prayer, and repeated it for the edification of the 
rest. Novice. Who would not be edified by Christ's so great humility? 32 

Finally, there is that acceptance of violence and sudden death that makes 
the Middle Ages so different from our own. The alert reader will here detect 
two contradictions, or, at least, difficulties: one summarized by Belsen, Hiro- 
shima, and other contemporary horrors, the other an apparent contradiction 
with my previous insistence on the traditional, stable, conservative side of 
medieval culture, which should make for regular ways, not violence and inse- 
curity. The first I find no difficulty at all, for today we do not "accept" the 
violence of total war as natural and unavoidable, not, even, as such, the do- 
mestic violence Europeans find so great in the United States. To this subject 

32 Coulton, Life in the Middle Ages, Vol. I, p. 65, no. 35. 


The Middle Ages 

I shall have to return. Nor is the second a genuine difficulty. Violence was to 
the medieval mind a part of God's plan, part of the expected regularities that 
govern the world. Disease above all, disease at its most catastrophic in 
plague as well as madness, hysteria, violent repression of heresy, the whole 
range of conventional crime, and, most important, perhaps, of all this, and 
something quite unknown to Americans for generations, the ever-present 
threat of famine in an economy wholly incapable of transporting staple food- 
stuffs very far or fast all these made for suffering, insecurity, violence. 

The Middle Ages, then, could not be humanitarian in our sense of organ- 
ized humanitarian movements. The Christian heritage did insist on the obli- 
gation of charity, and the church did what it could in the vast field of what we 
should consider necessary social services. There is no lack of the milk of 
human kindness in the lives of these people. Medieval piety is full of tales of 
Christian sharing with the unfortunate, from the familiar one of St. Martin 
of Tours, who slashed his cloak in two to warm a beggar with half of it, right 
on through to the end of the period. There is no question of hypocrisy here. 
But certainly to the rationalist humanitarian of the eighteenth century and 
later there is definitely something that shocks him, something that seems to 
him wrongheaded. This something is best put as the acceptance, the expecta- 
tion, of violence and suffering as part of nature and human nature. The medi- 
eval mind would have accepted as a truism the favorite reproach of the later 
rationalist humanitarian that Christian charity is mere alleviation of symp- 
toms, no cure of disease. The man of the Middle Ages was sure that there is 
no cure no cure here on earth and in this life, though a certain cure in 
eternal salvation. 

We sometimes like to imagine the admiring amazement with which we 
suppose, somewhat naively, a medieval man brought to our world would 
confront, say, an airplane in flight. Actually, fear might well be his first but 
not at all unusual emotion. And since he was quite used to attributing to the 
Devil at least as much ingenuity as we now attribute to ourselves, he might 
on reflection be neither puzzled nor surprised. Were he an educated medieval 
man, what would really astonish him, confront him with something utterly 
beyond his comprehension, would be an exposition of our belief in progress, 
natural science, heaven on earth to come. Machines he could take, but not 
the beliefs that made and were made by the machines. Happiness, salvation, 
heaven were certain enough to him, but not in this life, not on this earth, not 
even as remote goals of earthly progress. 

Salvation was a moral certainty of God's universe, though no single indi- 


A History of Western Morals 

vidual Christian could be sure of his own salvation, not certain in the meaning 
the word has for common sense. We moderns have, however, so confused the 
common-sense meaning of "certain," the statistical sense science gives the 
word, and the surviving moral sense we inherit from the Middle Ages, that 
we find it very hard to feel the word in its medieval sharpness, except per- 
haps in our moments of reverence for the wonders of natural science. Deep 
within some of us, at least, and perhaps surprisingly, in view of the newness 
of the sentiment, there is this opposite of the medieval attitude: the feeling 
that what we consider evil is not a part of the structure of the universe, that 
evil is not something we must struggle against with no hope of eradicating it, 
but is something we can destroy root and branch. No medieval man could 
really understand this point of view. It is significant that when the kind of 
writing we call Utopias reappears the Greeks, of course, had Utopias, no- 
tably the Republic of Plato we are already in the Renaissance. The Christian 
heaven was Utopia enough for the Age of Faith; but it was a sure possible 
haven, not a "no place" which is what Utopia means in Greek. 


This last brings up a final problem, one not to be avoided, but certainly not 
to be solved with universal acceptance. The Middle Ages in the West was 
indeed a time the last in Western history when, at least on the surface, all 
men had the same religion. To be more cautious, we may say that in the 
Middle Ages all Westerners were members of one church, the Roman Catho- 
lic. What effect did this unanimity, this existence of One Church, have on the 
conduct of men, on their moral attitudes? 

But first, was there unanimity? Was even the thirteenth century quite the 
irenic Age of Faith its apologists make it out to be? The actual incompleteness 
or imperfection of medieval spiritual unity is not to be denied. Heresy was 
endemic, and after the quarrel between Philip the Fair and Boniface VIII at 
the beginning of the fourteenth century schism was so deep and open that one 
may say that ecclesiastical unity was never really restored in the West. There 
were among the ruling classes who leave a record behind many hard-boiled 
political realists like Peter of Dreux whose conduct can hardly be reconciled 
with membership in the church even by a most extreme accepter of the gap 
between word and deed. 33 More important, there is evidence that laymen 

33 Yet the gap was indeed huge in the Middle Ages, if only because the whole structure 
of the word was so real and so perfect and so unattainable here on earth. I should guess 
Philip the Fair thought he was a good Christian perhaps not as good as his grandfather 
had been, but, still, a Christian. 


The Middle Ages 

sometimes went beyond the normal anticlericalism of the age into expressed 
doubts about articles of faith. The view that nobody dared express his doubts 
in the Middle Ages is simply not true. Here is a thirteenth-century Belgian 

Certain men of note in this world sat drinking in the tavern; and, as they grew 
warm with wine, they began to talk together of various things; and their talk fell 
upon that which shall be after this life. Then said one, "We are utterly deceived 
by those clerks, who say that our souls outlive the destruction of the body!** 
Hereupon all fell a-laughing. . . , 34 

True enough, the anecdote ends with the scoffers taught a lesson, but the 
scoffers could talk freely in their tavern, and they did question the doctrine of 
immortality. Finally, in formal philosophy, in metaphysics and epistemology, 
the range of medieval thought is quite as complete as it had been in the ancient 

Yet the fact of One Church and One Faith remains; and, moreover, for 
the ordinary thinking and feeling man there was no real alternative to the 
Christian cosmology, such as the Renaissance and, more particularly, the 
Age of Reason were later to provide. The medieval Tom Paine or Ethan 
Allen, or, for that matter, Thomas Jefferson, had to take it out in straight 
heresy on Christian grounds. We must try to estimate what difference this 
degree of formal unanimity made in medieval life. 

Two negatives seem clear. First, the unanimity was not by any means so 
complete and far-reaching as to preclude those differences of opinion or atti- 
tude that are essential to change, or, if you wish, "progress." In all sorts of 
ways, from technology and economic organisation to the fine arts, the four 
centuries after 1000 are centuries of conspicuous, though not by our standards 
rapid, change. Second, in terms of such familiar ethical codes as the Ten 
Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, it has to be said that there is 
no good evidence that medieval conduct was among the many any better than 
it had been in earlier times. It is very hard to disprove the freethinker's favor- 
ite assertion; the Middle Ages are not a period of lofty standards of loving- 
kindness, gentleness, honesty, chastity, refinement of passions. They are not, 
to a sympathetic student, the centuries of ignorance, cruelty, and filth they 
appeared to later freethinkers to be. But they certainly are not in practice 
"Christian" centuries; there have never yet been such centuries. 

The existence of this formally united Christendom does, however, help 
explain a good deal that went on in the Middle Ages. Without it, the Crusades 

34 Coulton, Life in the Middle Ages, Vol. I, p. 131. 


A History of Western Morals 

would have been impossible; and the Crusades were of great importance in 
the formation of our modern world. Without it, the West might never have 
been able to carry into modern times that tenuous sense of belonging to some 
society bigger than the nation-state, which it has never quite lost. Above all, 
this feeling that there is One Faith had as a logical, indeed inevitable, conse- 
quence certain medieval habits of mind hard for doctrinaire modern liberals 
to understand though they ought to try to understand these medieval atti- 
tudes, since they are human habits of mind not wholly banished, let us say, 
from the liberal's own unconscious mind. If you really know that x is evil and 
by its very existence threatens to destroy y, which you know equally well is 
good the good you can hardly avoid concluding that x must be got rid of 
as completely and as certainly as possible. Such certainty here on earth only 
death affords. I do not quite dare in these days suggest that the problem 
of toleration is one of pure logic; but there is a logic of the emotions in which 
the medieval attitude toward heretics, the institution of the Inquisitions them- 
selves, is clear, and untainted with the abnormal. 

Indeed, the heretic was to the medieval mind the abnormal, the corrupt. 
Here is Etienne de Bourbon in the thirteenth century: 

Heretics are refuse and debased, and therefore they may not return to their for- 
mer state but by a miracle of God, as dross may not return to silver, nor dregs to 
wine. 33 

Another chronicler tells how, after the orthodox crusaders had successfully 
stormed the Albigensian stronghold of Beziers, their leaders came to the 
Abbot of Citeaux, spiritual guide to the operation, and told him there were 
Catholics mingled with the heretics in the city. 

"What shall we do, Lord? We cannot discern between the good and evil." The 
Abbot (fearing, as also did the rest, lest they should feign themselves Catholics 
from fear of death, and should return again to their faithlessness after his de- 
parture,) is said to have answered: "Slay them, for God knoweth His own." So 
there they were slain in countless multitudes in that city. 35 

I think the reader will understand how ordinary medieval folk felt about 
heretics and the way they should be treated if he will reflect on how ordinary 
newspaper readers, and some judges, feel about "sexual psychopaths" today. 
There is, finally, the question, I think unanswerable, but surely unavoid- 
able for us in our multanimous times: Did this broad medieval unanimity 
(save for a small heretical minority) on matters of religion, this common 

33 Coultoa, Life in the Middle Ages, Vol. I, pp. 87; 68. 


The Middle Ages 

acceptance of an explanation of man's fate, even of the whole universe, help 
make men less unhappy, give them a mental and moral security we lack, make 
them, to come out with the stereotype, less neurotic? We cannot give statis- 
tical estimates of any value as to the relative incidence of mental "disturb- 
ances" of all sorts as between 1850 and 1950, let alone as between 1250 and 
1950. Our literary sources make it perfectly clear that madness insanity 
was common enough in the Middle Ages; they also make it clear that the 
medieval explanation of madness essentially, in one form or another, pos- 
session of the soul of the madman by agents of Satan together with the 
medieval habit of violence, and other factors, such as the cost of care, com- 
bined to make the lot of these unfortunate madmen unhappy indeed, most 
shocking, to our notions. But for the great majority of medieval people the 
question, whether put in the form "Was there less neurosis then than now?" 
or in the less pretentious and more familiar form "Were these morally and 
theologically convinced people happier than we are?" is quite unanswerable, 
and, not merely in the narrow logical-analytical sense, meaningless. I should 
grossly answer, they probably were not happier. But the Matthew Arnold who 
wrote in those rosy Victorian times felt differently. 

The Sea of Faith 

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore 

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd. 

But now I only hear 

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, 

Retreating, to the breath 

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear 

And naked shingles of the world. 36 

And so, too, do our own contemporary publicists who worry over our obvious 
many-mindedness in these great matters of world view. They give, or at least 
imply, another answer, that medieval men had a spiritual serenity and, there- 
fore, a happiness we have disastrously lost. The skeptic can do no more than 
conclude, not proven. German is a great help when one wants to be vague. 
Sorrows these medieval men and women had, if not our world sorrows; but 
how real are Weltschmerzen? 

36 Dover Beach. 


The Reformation 

undergraduate terms as "Ren and Ref " in many a college, is now of such long 
standing that it will probably survive the attacks of the revisionists. The two 
coincide roughly in time, at least in the climactic sixteenth century, and they 
are related, as all parts of Western culture are related. But to tag the sixteenth 
century as "Renaissance and Reformation" is no more sensible than it would 
be to tag the nineteenth century as "Nationalism and Natural Science." The 
reformers and humanists, even though there were individuals, like Erasmus, 
whose lives linked them personally, were different men trying to do different 
things, as different as the nationalist Mazzini and the scientist Darwin. For 
the historian of morals in particular, Reformation and Renaissance are dif- 
ferent worlds, not easily yoked in any metaphor, not even as obverse and re- 
verse of a medal struck against the Schoolmen. 

The Reformation belongs essentially to the history of the Middle Ages. 
The movements symbolized yes, let us avoid the trap of materialist deter- 
mination and say frankly, in part initiated and guided by men like Luther, 
Zwingli, Cranmer, and Calvin were but the last of a long series of medieval 
outbreaks of the profound Christian not-acceptance of things as they are but 
outbreaks from a Christian fortress, not freethinking attacks on that fortress. 
I have used dull and flat words indeed; the matter can be put more eloquently, 
and perhaps, therefore, more accurately: The Protestant reformers and those 
of the Catholic Reformation, too, were the heirs and successors of Benedict of 
Nursia, of Hildebrand, of Bernard of Qairvaux, of Francis of Assisi, of 


The Reformation 

Wycliffe and Hus, and of many others who throughout the ages sought to tear 
the church from its compromises with this world of success, wealth, power, 
comfort, cruelty, thick-skinned "realism," men who sought to bring back in 
all its freshness, all its revolutionary immediacy, the good news of the Gos- 
pels; they were not precursors of Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, Jeffer- 
son, and Bentham. 

Every one therefore which heareth these words of mine, and doeth them shall 
be likened unto a wise man, which built his house upon the rock: and the rain 
descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; 
and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth 
these words of mine and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man 
which built his house upon the sand: and the rain descended, and the floods 
came, and the winds blew, and smote upon that house; and it fell: and great was 
the fall thereof. 1 

There are, of course, great differences between Luther and Calvin and 
their medieval predecessors; the Protestant reformers broke the unity of West- 
ern Christendom. Their heresies founded successful schismatic churches, 
which have gone on multiplying to the point where neither heresy nor schism 
really comes into many a modern Protestant's working vocabulary, any more 
than such to him obsolete words as "brook" and "village" come into the 
Coloradan's vocabulary. Note, incidentally, that the cultural environment can 
be as tyrannical as the geographic. Until Luther, the church had either insti- 
tutionalized, tamed, softened I do not mean this in a bad sense the pas- 
sionate other-worldliness of a Francis, or buried under the weight of academic 
disapproval the incipient, and dangerous, rationalism of an Abelard, or simply 
exterminated or, at least, driven underground by firm suppression threatening 
mass heresies, as with the Albigensians. That Luther and Calvin had another 
fate we must in fairness admit is due in part, indeed in large part, to a great 
complex of causes, some of which the analyst must list as economic, political, 
institutional, and the like. But the fact remains that Luther and Calvin were 
not entrepreneurs, nor nationalists, nor above all not this "modern" 
rationalists, democrats, workers for the eventual establishment of the Jeffer- 
sonian-Jacksonian-Rooseveltian republic of the United States. They were 
medieval men: Luther an Augustinian monk who owed a great deal to his 
founder, Calvin a serious-minded medieval lawyer, a member of that middle 
class that had long been taking over the work of running things that the 
knights could not or would not do. Neither Luther nor Calvin, for that matter 

i Matthew 7:24-27. 


A History of Western Morals 

not even the mildly "rationalist" Zwingli, thought of himself as tearing the 
seamless web of Christendom, as setting up a church that would settle down in 
comfort with hundreds of other schismatic churches. They were all setting up 
what they thought, if I may use the political language of our time, was the 
One Church, the eglise unique. 

That the Protestant Reformation helped greatly to make the world we live 
in should be most obvious. In important senses, Protestantism is "modern," 
as modern as science and technology. But this modernity, I must insist, was 
not planned by the fathers of Protestantism, was, in fact, unforeseen by them, 
a fine example of something obvious to all but the very naive rationalist, that 
a planned reform, once introduced into the infinite nexus of concrete human 
relations, can have quite unpredictable results. Once the break with Rome 
was in the making, even Luther, driven by the break to appeal against author- 
ity, against tradition, power, status, was put in the posture of defending free- 
dom, innovation, individualism, "modernity." Luther, and the other reform- 
ers, for the most part, wanted men free from Rome, but not free from a God 
who was no anarchist, no scientific naturalist, who was a churchman and a 
Christian; but any challenge to authority, any challenge as eloquent as theirs, 
can stir the anarchist in us all, the anarchist who refuses to listen to the old 
argument that true freedom for the individual is not his doing what he wants, 
or thinks he wants, to do, but his doing what is right, what you want him to do. 
Protestantism did help make the non-Christian world view of the Enlighten- 

That the Protestant reformers so broke up the formal unity of Western 
Christendom against their original intentions is due to the course of events 
dependent in part on quite other than direct religious or theological concerns. 
To such concerns we shall come soon enough. Meanwhile, our starting point 
must be the same as Luther's, Calvin's, and even Loyola's: how to do God's 
will on earth, or, if you insist on the moral side of it, how to make men more 
truly Christians. Now it is true that the reformers, though they were agreed 
that the Catholic Church of the early sixteenth century was not fulfilling its 
mission on earth, were in broad disagreement as to just what this mission 
should be. The range of Protestant opinions as to the true Christian mission 
is great, almost coextensive with the range of human nature. On the rejection 
of certain specific Catholic institutions, such as monasticism, celibacy of the 
clergy, and a few others, there is nearly unanimity among the early Protes- 
tants. Theologically, however, it is hard to weave a blanket wide enough to 
cover all the Protestant reformers. Luther at his most excited which is very 


The Reformation 

excited pushed the doctrine of salvation by faith alone to the point of an- 
archy, a point at which his own new Lutheran Church never arrived, and 
where Luther the administrator did not stay for long. In a very general sense 
it may be true that religious rebels appeal to faith as against works just as 
political and moral rebels appeal to liberty against authority, but the general- 
ization is too broad to be very useful; the facts resist this particular dualism 
more clearly even than usual. Some of the reformers seem to have wanted no 
more than to take over the governance of the church from Rome; a "high 
church" party is present from the start in the Anglican and the Lutheran 
Churches, a party that hardly feels at all the evangelical need to make the 
good news revolutionary, earth-rending. 

If now you ask what moved these reformers to want the particular kind of 
evangel they preached, and if what moved them to various expressed religious 
aims was not simply various changes in their concrete cultural environment 
the coming of nationalism, capitalism, science, technology, and the like we 
are right back at the old, unsolvable, unavoidable problem of circularity of 
causation. I can only repeat that the problem seems to me really unsolvable. 
But I think that one reason why Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and perhaps even 
Henry VIII wanted what they wanted was because they could read, and being 
able to read, they could read such prodding sentences as: 

Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of them: 
else ye have no reward with your Father which is in heaven. 

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; 
or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and 
mammon. 2 


We may go direct to what is, certainly for the historian of Western morals, 
the most important spot on the Protestant spectrum the way of life associ- 
ated with that big word "Puritanism," or, almost as big a word, "Calvinism." 3 
"Puritanism," especially, is one of those imprecise words that irritate the 
semanticist, no doubt unduly. It does have a hard core, which I suggest can 
be reasonably well located as a belief that the individual, the person, has a 

2 Matthew 6:1; 6:24. "Righteousness" in 6:1 may be "almsgiving"; but the central 
notion is clear. 

3 I cannot here go into church history and history of dogma sufficiently to cover the 
varieties of Protestantism. For a brief survey I can send the reader to my Ideas and 
Men, pp. 316-333, and to the works suggested for reading with that chapter. 


A History of Western Morals 

spiritual component (not a phrase the Puritan would like he would say 
simply a soul) which can and ought to control rigorously the demands of his 
fleshly component, his body. Such demands are many and varied, and the 
Puritan, historically considered, in his sixteenth- and seventeenth-century 
setting and in his modern one, has varied in his estimate of their badness as 
well as in his measures to control them. The Puritan ought, however, to be 
distinguished from the Christian mystic and the Christian ascetic, much 
though he has in common with these protesters against the Chretien moyen 
sensuel. The Puritan does not flee this world, does not deny the flesh, does not 
by any means seek to annihilate the flesh; he does seek to control the flesh, 
which means under certain conditions refusing its demands. 

Now "Puritanism" is the semanticist's despair as are so many of the 
words the moralist, and the social scientist as well, must use not so much 
because of taxonomic sloppiness in the way it is used generally, but because 
of the human sentiments of love and hate that inform, and deform, its use. 
Especially for the English-speaking peoples, it is important to note that cer- 
tain tendencies of earlier Puritanism were incorporated into the way of life we 
call "Victorian" and were, in the process of incorporation, twisted in ways 
Calvin or John Knox would not have recognized. When in the early twentieth 
century the literary led a mass onslaught against everything Victorian, Puritan- 
ism was one of the first and most often buried of the victims. We when young 
knew the Puritan was life-denying, joy-killing, and a hypocrite in the bargain. 
The balance has swung back again, but the echoes of the great noise set up 
by Mencken and many another are not wholly stilled. It takes an effort to get 
back to the Puritanism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 4 

What the Puritanism of Calvin, Knox, the Mathers, and all the others 
meant for morals is, of course, closely tied to the systematic thought of these 
leaders on matters of theology. For us, their central position is a very firm 
insistence on the absolute omnipotence of God and on the wormlike insignifi- 
cance of man. But these thinkers differ greatly from the author of the Book 
of Job, who ends with one of the most eloquent assertions of God's inscru- 
table might and man's presumptuous weakness. The Calvinists do not so the 

* The reader should go to the soundly balanced studies of Perry Miller, The New 
England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, New York, Macmillan, 1939, and The New 
England Mind: From Colony to Province, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1953. 
George F. Willison, Saints and Strangers, New York, Reynal and Hitchcock, 1945, 
tries to redress the balance in a way all too common, by asserting that what is usually 

said about the Puritans at least about those in and around Massachusetts Bay is the 

opposite of the truth. But then, historians have to make discoveries, just as scientists do. 


The Reformation 

outsider must conclude from their actions quite find God's will inscrutable. 
God might indeed have condemned us all to hell. Adam's sin was reason 
enough, but the Calvinist's God does not need reasons, not reasons tailored 
to poor human understanding, and there are moments in the sermons of 
Puritan divines when it seems as though God, turned Freudianly anthropo- 
morphic, sadistically enjoys our suffering, and intends to keep piling it on. 
This is surely true of Jonathan Edwards's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry 
God," notably the famous passage: 

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some 
loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath 
towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to 
be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you 
are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful 
venomous serpent is in ours. 5 

If, however, you read the whole sermon unsympathetically enough, you will 
have no trouble concluding that Edwards was skilled in what the complainers 
nowadays worry over as "motivational research," that he was a gifted but by 
no means "hidden" persuader. 6 

The Calvinists were desirous of saving men's souls, and of getting them 
to act on earth in such a way as to make salvation at least not impossible. 
They were surprisingly practical men, not anchorites, not mystics; they were 
men for whom the cure of souls meant saving souls to further the good on 
this earth. This in turn meant knowing something about God's wishes. If you 
assumed these Calvinists to be rationalists, you might accuse them of both 
inconsistency and pride. But they were not rationalists, and they did not need 
to account to anyone for their knowledge of God except to God, and in a 
very exacting, if not rationalistic, accounting. But as outsiders, we may dis- 
tinguish two contradictions between their theology and their ethics. 

The first we have already dwelt upon, for it runs through Western moral 
and intellectual history. Theologically, the Calvinists were extreme deter- 
minists; ethically, though the orthodox ardently repudiated those doctrines 
of mere "conditional" predestination and even outright freedom of the will 
later grouped as "Arminianism," they were clear that their duty was to fight 
evil here on earth, and thus make the necessary prevail. The Calvinists, espe- 
cially during their great debates of the seventeenth century, are most interest- 
ing because they are ferociously determined to solve this puzzle of predesti- 

5 The Works of Jonathan Edwards, AM., London, Ball, Arnold, 1840, Vol. H, p. 10. 
6 1 hesitate to make so rationalistic a suggestion as that Edwards knew what he was doing. 


A History of Western Morals 

nation, to keep their insufferably powerful God from appearing to poor 
humans quite the tyrant he looked like indeed, had to be. Their leaders 
wrestled with the problem; the ordinary Calvinist had to live with it. He lived 
with it as, fortunately, human beings even in the West have lived with their 
metaphysical anxieties, by solutions adjusting, somehow, sentiments, emo- 
tions, habits, and at least a minimal demand of the intellect. The commonest 
solution was not far from Job's: man cannot know all God knows, or he 
would be God, which is unthinkable; therefore, the individual cannot know, 
cannot be certain, that he belongs to the predestined saved (as the antinomian 
John of Leyden was said to have believed of himself) instead of to the pre- 
destined damned; the individual is not, however, wholly without some light 
on the differences visible here on earth between saved and damned; the 
saved are likely to do the ethically right thing, a thing clear in the whole 
community of the Puritans, the damned to do the ethically wrong thing; there- 
fore, the individual who feels any inclination to do what he knows is wrong 
will suppress he is as yet without benefit of Freud any such inclinations; 
he will behave as if saved, in the hope that he is saved, according to rigidly 
predestined plans made by God in eternity for this testing earthly prelude to 
eternity. It is no test for God, who knows how it will come out; but it is a 
fearfully uncertain test for the tested. 

The second Calvinist difficulty does indeed, at least in its historical aspect, 
deserve to be called an inconsistency. The Calvinists at their most extreme 
made the sharpest of distinctions between the very few saved, the saints, and 
the very many damned, the sinners. This sort of distinction in worldly matters 
is clearly one between the aristoi and the polloi. The Calvinists were aristo- 
crats of the spirit. Yet they appear in some senses to have fathered democracy, 
both of the flesh and of the spirit. Again in terms of historical development, 
there is no real difficulty here. In the first place, the Calvinists were for the 
most part, save in France, where some of the great nobles made use of Cal- 
vinism in their unsuccessful fight with the crown, members of the landed 
gentry, caught in the squeeze of inflation, the professional classes, or the 
merchant classes. They did not like what was left of the old feudal nobility, 
and said so firmly. They at least helped discredit an older and quite different 
kind of aristocracy. Second, Calvinist ethics, as Max Weber pointed out, had 
its part in the long process by which capitalism and its complex of values, 
some of which made for egalitarian democracy, prevailed in the West. Third, 
Calvinism got its start in rebellion against the established church; and in the 
West rebellion of any consequence has always had to appeal to the individual 


The Reformation 

to make the decision to break with habit, law, established right, and such a 
break must be made in the name of the individual's right to think for himself, 
to be a "free" man. In short, Calvinism carried with it seeds of a way of life 
very different from that of Geneva, Amsterdam, Edinburgh, and Boston. 

In those places, and wherever it flourished pristinely, however, Calvinism 
was not democratic, not libertarian, not really "modern." An American's 
mind at these words leaps at once to the Salem witchcraft trials. The historian 
is not surprised at these trials, but, rather, at the fact that there were not many 
more of them. For the Calvinist at bottom saw the universe as his medieval an- 
cestors had seen it, as the universe of Christian cosmology, not by any means 
the universe of the "Newtonian world-machine." That from Calvinist societies 
there came so much so different from what the first Calvinists could possibly 
have planned or expected or wanted is in part explicable, as we shall shortly 
see, in terms of the theoretical explanations made by men like Weber and 
Tawney. But it is in part also explicable by the fact that in ethics and politics 
ideas can have consequences not clear to those who first develop these ideas; 
or, in a familiar figure of speech, idea seeds do not always grow into quite the 
plant the sower had expected. 7 Calvin, Knox, and the rest did not knowingly 
sow what we have recently been reaping. 

Much of the way of life that developed out of their leadership did prove 
congruous with the channeling of human energies into the great increase in 
material wealth, in human command over natural resources, that made the 
modern West unique. We have come to the "Weber thesis," one of those 
ideas, or "leads," or simply "interpretations," that are now part of the slowly 
cumulative study of human conduct. 8 Greatly simplified, Weber's thesis 
which he insists is a sociological, not a psychological, thesis is this: the 
Protestant, and more especially the Calvinist, worked hard on this earth in 
the station to which he had been called usually in what we should now call 
"business" of some sort or a profession like law or medicine; he worked hard 
because he believed God wanted him to follow his vocation faithfully, and 

7 The stock example is the relation between the Locke-De Lolme-Blackstone concept of 
the separation of powers in eighteenth-century Britain in itself to some extent objec- 
tively erroneous and its later development in American constitutional history. On this 
see A. L. Lowell, "An Example from the Evidence of History," in Factors Determining 
Human Behavior, Harvard Tercentenary Publications, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard Uni- 
versity Press, 1937, p. 119. 

8 The reader had best go direct to the locus classicus, Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic 
and the Spirit of Capitalism, ed. by T. Parsons, New York, Scribner, 1930. Also R. H. 
Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, new ed., New York, Harcourt, Brace, 


A History of Western Morals 

also, no doubt, because "the devil lies in wait for idle hands"; he believed, 
also, that success in his worldly enterprises was a sign that God was with him; 
he had no scruples about the morality of interest-taking, nor in general about 
the whole economic structure of nascent industrial capitalism; he was ready, 
once technology had got that far, to put his capital into new power machinery 
which in turn snowballed into the great productive capacity of the modern 
world. If, as a consumer and an encourager of consumption, he was certainly 
no ascetic, the kinds of products his tastes and his ethics impelled him to turn 
out were the solid goods of large-scale production, mass market, profits 
plowed back, not the luxury goods of the artist and craftsman working to 
provide noble and churchman with "superfluous" end products. Even his 
churches were bare of the kind of ornamentation that costs heavily in support 
of "unproductive" artists. In short, the Protestant turned great moral ener- 
gies, such as inspired the best of medieval monasticism, not, so to speak, 
away from this-worldly economic productivity, but directly into it. 

Weber himself had been influenced by Marxism, and seems to have felt 
that the Protestant ethic helped the capitalist to justify what was "exploita- 
tion" of the workers. The Englishman Tawney, and others who have pursued 
this line of study, have gone further. They are clear that the Calvinist ethical 
concept of worldly success as a sign from God that the successful was not 
unlikely to be numbered by God among the saved was extended by the suc- 
cessful capitalist to include the convenient notion that failure to make money 
remaining in the status of a paid worker with no capital save his capacity 
to work for a bare wage was a sign from God that the worker was perhaps 
damned, or had somehow sinned, if only by being lazy and incompetent. 
Even ordinary Christian charity migjit seem interference with the will of God; 
to this may be added the general Calvinist notion of predestination, which 
could be used to justify any established relation, and also the common Protes- 
tant appeal to the individual as against authority, which could be used to 
justify economic individualism, or laissez faire, as it was later called. 

The sum total puts too much of a burden on the Protestant ethic. By the 
eighteenth century, many other ideas and influences were coming to bear on 
the economic structure of the West. But even to limit the discussion to the 
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one must first of all show that there was 
in fact "exploitation" of workers. Absolutely, in terms of real income, it 
would seem difficult to show that workers were worse off in these early mod- 
ern times than in medieval times. Relatively, in terms of a comparison be- 


The Reformation 

tween what the middle classes and what the workers gained from the slowly 
increasing economic productivity of the early modern centuries, it may be 
that the workers, no longer effectively protected by their obsolescent medieval 
guild and companionship organizations, did fall behind. But one would be 
safer with a Scots verdict of "not proven." The fury with which the twentieth- 
century attack on capitalism, industrialism, the Protestant ethic, has been 
carried out is in part simply a manifestation of sentiments of revolt, not very 
different from those that inspired Menckenian attacks on Puritanism. 

An even greater difficulty with the Weber thesis taken as a blanket ex- 
planation of modern capitalism is the fact that so much of the spirit of capital- 
ism is discernible in the late medieval world before the Protestant revolt. 
There is a good symbol here: the ledgers of the fourteenth-century Florentine 
merchant Datini two centuries before Calvin are headed "In the name of 
God and of profit." Datini was one of those obsessive persons who can de- 
stroy no papers, and by extraordinary luck the life record of this otherwise 
ordinary person is available to us. It shows much the same combination of 
business and religious anxieties, of concern for his far-flung business interests 
and for his future life, that come out in Weber's Protestant Ethic* 

Well before the Protestant revolt, firm foundations of modern capitalism 
had been laid in Italy, in the Low Countries. Capitalist careers, those of a 
Jacques Coeur in France, of the Fugger family in Germany, had been made 
by men untouched by the Protestant ethic. Venetian trade with the Levant, 
the English wool trade, the Hanseatic trade are all medieval examples of 
highly organized marketing methods dependent on banking and on "business" 
mentality. The Protestant ethic was an important contributory factor in the 
rise of capitalist society in those nations of Europe which, on the whole, were 
later to be the leaders of the industrial world: Britain, North Germany, Hol- 
land, the United States. But the map of nineteenth-century industrial leader- 
ship does not exactly coincide with the map of Protestantism: Belgium, North- 
ern France, the German Rhineland, Piedmont-Lombardy remained Catholic 
countries, and yet full of the "spirit of capitalism." Some of what went into 
the frame of mind that made capitalism is not specifically Protestant nor 
specifically Catholic, but, rather, Western, a product of the long moral history 
we have been tracing, and no doubt of the long moral prehistory we cannot 
trace. The agon, the Western ritual of formal competition, or combat, if you 

9 Iris Origo, The Merchant of Prato, New York, Knopf, 1957. Datini's ledger is quoted 
on p. viiL See especially the Marchesa Origo's perceptive introduction. 


A History of Western Morals 

prefer, at some point in the Middle Ages, perhaps as early as that marvelous 
thirteenth century, began to take economic channels that were to lead to the 
Napoleons of industry. We cannot fully understand why human energies took 
this turn, but once it was taken, the Weber thesis, and the Marxist thesis, help 
us to understand why these energies were so effective. Protestantism helped 
weaken that contempt for the banausic that dominated the Western warrior 
aristocracies so long, and that contempt for everything this-worldly includ- 
ing the banausic that filled the minds of some of the ablest and most ener- 
getic of the priestly aristocracies. 

It is, finally, worth noting that as long as Protestantism in any of its 
forms including, very notably, Calvinism remained what I have elsewhere 
called an "active" religion it by no means encouraged the worldly way of life 
Weber, Tawney, and others have analyzed. The Christian who takes his reli- 
gion to be his whole life and this is true of the active phase of any form of 
the Christian religion cannot possibly be first and foremost an entrepreneur 
or a capitalist. He need not the Protestant did not flee this world as did 
the anchorites. But he cannot make worldly success even one of his major 
goals; his mind must be on other things, even if those other things are mind- 
ing other and weaker, or, at any rate, less religious men's business. Calvin's 
own Geneva was by no means a progressive industrial center; nor is the 
Boston of the Mathers very clearly as yet the germ of the Boston of the 
Lawrences, the Lowells, the Forbeses. 

Once the fire goes out of Calvinism, once it becomes sober, respectable, a 
matter of routine not, be it understood, therefore a matter of mere form, or 
hypocrisy, or pharisaism, though it always seems such to the next set of 
rebels once Calvinism is "inactive," then the Weber thesis does seem to 
hold. The moral residue of Calvinism, after the intense fusion of theology and 
ethics in the heart of the believer no longer obtains, is congruous indeed with 
the "spirit of capitalism." But so, too, under favoring conditions, is the moral 
residue of Catholicism. Modern, industrial capitalism found less good soil in 
many Catholic countries, such as Italy, in large part because such countries 
lacked coal and iron. Moreover, Catholic habits, traditions, its network of 
established values, certainly made for conservative resistance to change and 
change is the essence of capitalism. But once, as in Belgium, Northern France, 
Piedmont, the new capitalism got a start, it found in the disciples of estab- 
lished Catholicism a by no means unfavorable spiritual climate. 10 

10 1 owe this point to David Landes, who in his studies of the very Catholic textile center 
Roubaix-Tourcoing has found a living ''Protestant ethic" in Weber's sense. 


The Reformation 


This central world-view of Protestantism, which we have to call Puritanism, 
was by no means limited to the formal Calvinist sects. Puritan ethics and 
Puritan morals are found in wide sectors of the conservative state churches, 
the Anglican and the Lutheran, and they inspire many of the wilder sects of 
the Left of Protestantism. Now many of these groups, both of the Right and 
of the Left, by no means shared the deteraiinist theology of the Calvinists. 
Puritanism as a moral ideal and as a way of life is broader than any theology. 
Calvinism is its core, but there is a wide margin around that core, a margin 
unmistakably Puritan. 

The Puritan as a moral ideal in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries 
is more difficult for us today to understand than the Greek beautiful-and- 
good, the feudal knight, or the medieval saint, perhaps because the Puritan 
ideal, very considerably altered, and often not recognized as such, is nonethe- 
less so alive with many twentieth-century Americans. We do not, I think, see 
the ideal embodied in an ecclesiastic, not in Calvin himself, nor in Knox, Beza, 
nor even in some less-known and presumably more typical Puritan divine. 
Though we refer freely to the Puritan "theocracies" of Geneva or Boston, we 
do not think of the Puritan ideal in clerical terms. Cromwell comes closer. He 
is certainly, in the Carlylean sense of the word, the Puritan hero. His aware- 
ness of "intimacy with" is not quite the fair way to put it God, his 
troubles with his conscience, his mastery of discipline for himself and for his 
men, his Puritan orthodoxy in dress and manners, his practical gifts of com- 
mand and persuasion all this fits in with the ideal. 

But for what I have called the moral ideal one does not go to the great, the 
geniuses. The moral ideal is never perfectly embodied in anyone. It is a 
concrete abstraction built up from many sources. A good many Americans, 
in spite of the work of the debunkers, still see the Puritan as the conven- 
tionally handsome young man the sculptor Daniel French made into a bronze 
John Harvard, or the grave, mature, sturdy Puritan of St. Gaudens's Deacon 
Chapin in Springfield, Massachusetts. And it does seem again that physically 
the Puritan ought not to be frail, ought not to look (to use a favorite word of 
the nineteenth century) too "spiritual." Nor ought he, though John Milton 
was indeed a Puritan, be poet or artist. Tawney to the contrary notwithstand- 
ing, he ought not to be a London or an Amsterdam merchant or banker. 

Our best lead here is David Riesman's phrase "inner-directed." The Puri- 
tan was alive to the civil war in the breast, and knew that he had to fight it. 


A History of Western Morals 

God was on his side, wanted him to win, would even, in the sense of the 
typical Puritan adage that "God helps those who help themselves," be his ally. 
Still, the war was no war of coalition not on the Puritan's side at least. He 
had to fight himself with himself, alone. The outside world of nature and of 
other men did not necessarily seem hostile to him in his struggle, though in 
comparison with later humanitarian and universalist faiths Puritanism is pes- 
simistic, has in its full strength the vein of iron that runs through Christianity, 
both active and inactive. The Puritan was not antisocial, asocial; he knew he 
had to get on with his fellows. He knew that charity was enjoined on him as 
a duty, and that he had to do his duty. 

His commanding general in this war with himself, which did often involve 
war with others, was his conscience. He would not, I think, even were he a 
strictly orthodox Calvinist, have easily thought of his conscience as "deter- 
mined" by something quite outside him, even if that something were God. 
His conscience was himself. (Here, incidentally, is the heart of the intellectual 
difficulty with unconditional predestination I have discussed above.) As out- 
siders, we may hold that his conscience responded to the voice of a particular 
cultural tradition, to the pressures of his fellow Puritans, to the demands of 
the body he was disciplining, to an unconscious he had never heard about. He 
was always sure it was his voice, and always hoped that it was echoing God's. 

Concretely, his conscience told him to obey the Ten Commandments. The 
Puritan's dependence on the Bible is a commonplace, and so, too, is his 
tendency to go first to the Old rather than the New Testament. This last point 
must not be exaggerated, however, or we shall fall into the errors of the 
debunkers of the 1920's, who made out the Puritans to be ferocious devotees 
of a revived Jehovah utterly forgetful of the Sermon on the Mount. Here, as 
so often in matters of morals and taste, one needs a hairspring balance. The 
Puritan, like most morally earnest men in the Western tradition, had at least 
a touch of the Stoic. His inner-direction would not let him wear his heart on 
his sleeve, but it is not fair to say that he had no heart. He liked order, disci- 
pline, neatness, and these things he did not find in the undeserving poor who 
are the usual objects of charity. But he was even harder on himself than OP 
others, if he lived up to the ideal; and the world he wanted this one to be was 
surely not a cruel world. 

Nor was it a gloomy one, a prison for the flesh. We must continue to step 
carefully. The Puritan was certainly no hedonist. Much that in normal West- 
era practice, and even in normal Western ideal, is at worst harmless pleasure, 
he felt was following the Devil's lead. In those few times and places when the 


The Reformation 

strongly Puritanical were in full power, they translated their ideal into blue 
laws, sumptuary legislation of all sorts, the laws of a "republic of virtue." A 
rigid Sabbatarianism has long been the symbol of this phase of the rule of the 
saints, one that sticks firmly in the craws of their many opponents and that 
gave rise to the well-known squib: 

To Banbery came I, O prophane one! 
Where I saw a Puritane-one, 
Hanging of his Cat on Monday, 
For killing of a Mouse on Sonday. 11 

The Puritans passed laws to compel non-Puritans to behave in certain 
ways because, like good heirs of a long Western history, they thought this 
was the way to regulate morals. They had not had Political Science 104 in a 
good American college, and did not know that sumptuary and suchlike legis- 
lation was ineffective. Moreover, in ideal, and to a great extent in practice, the 
Puritan required no more from others than he required from himself. If he 
believed the community should have rigorous codes of conduct, he had al- 
ready been rigorous with himself. There were Puritan hypocrites, of course, 
but Robert Burns's Holy Willie is no fair sample; besides, Willie's trouble 
was not hypocrisy, but pride. There is nothing perverse or unusual about the 
legal phases of the blue laws, nor nearly as much as we once thought is per- 
verse in the moral phases. 

The Puritans were strict Sabbatarians because they felt strongly that the 
Catholics from whom they were revolting had profaned the Sabbath by letting 
all sorts of worldly activities go on then, by making it into what in English is 
now called a holiday, instead of making it what God meant it to be, a holyday. 
Much of the rest of their prohibitions are a defiance of the old nobility against 
whom also they were in revolt. Their simple clothes, their dull, somber colors, 
their short-cropped hair, their avoidance of the dance, music (save for hymns, 
in which the modern psychologist might say they found an outlet for much 
that was otherwise repressed) , the drama, all are protests against the con- 
spicuous consumption of an upper class. These prohibitions, and the deep 
Puritan distrust of the arts in particular, no doubt have deeper roots than this 

11 Richard Brathwait, Barnabae Itinerarium: Barnabee's Journall, ed. by D. B. Thomas, 
London, Penguin Press, 1932, p. 17. Brathwaifs Latin (p. 16) is better: 

Veni Banbery, O prophanum! 

Ubi vidi Puritanwn, 

Felem facientem furem, 

Quid Sabbatho stravit Murem. 


A History of Western Morals 

protest against an old nobility and an old, and by the sixteenth century very 
much painted and adorned, church; but the protest, the inevitable human 
version of Hegel's dialectic, is there. 

The other roots are no doubt many as well as deep, not altogether ex- 
posed in their entirety even by psychoanalysis. Macaulay's well-known epi- 
gram that the Puritans stopped bearbaiting in England when they were in 
power, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to 
the spectators is true a bit over half true, anyway but not just. The Puri- 
tans shared the common Western acceptance of the facts of pain and violence, 
an acceptance not challenged by large groups in the West much before the 
eighteenth century. You cannot expect them to feel for the bear. As for the 
spectators, the Puritans felt that they were demeaning themselves at bear- 
baiting; they felt that this was a low pleasure, and they did not hesitate to ban 
what they thought to be low pleasures. There were, in their opinion, many 
such, though the long list of them comes almost wholly under a broad head of 
long-recognized vices, or temptations to vice gambling, drunkenness, lewd- 
ness, boasting, conspicuous consumption. These pleasures all seemed to them 
a threat to what they valued most in externals, in conduct self-control. 

There were, however, it must be insisted, allowable pleasures for the 
Puritan. He did not approve of gluttony, which appears in the sermons along 
with other vices. But he was not greatly worried over it, and in matters of 
food and drink he favored solid, sound fare and enough of it. He was not 
notably abstemious if his digestion was good, and contrary to the opinion of 
the young of the 1920's his digestion often was good. He took the command- 
ment against adultery at least as seriously as he took the others, but within 
the due bounds of monogamous marriage there is no evidence that he felt 
about sexual intercourse any of St. Paul's obvious doubts. The empirical 
evidence that he enjoyed the pleasures of the bed is overwhelming, especially 
for the American Puritans, for whom large families were an economic asset. 
The simpler pleasures of life, those of work, good health, exercise, the 
weather, all were open to him; if you are going to make much of Milton the 
Puritan, you had better accept the poet of L* Allegro and // Penseroso as well 
as the poet of Paradise Lost. There were the pleasures of the mind, for though 
the Puritans were by no means all intellectuals, their average was high; they 
seem often to have found pleasure in such matters. 

But they did not like Art. They closed the playhouses, stopped dancing 
on the green, where folk habit encouraged warmly boisterous embraces, or 
anywhere else, discouraged the arts of architecture and decoration in their 


The Reformation 

barnlike churches, banished for a time all music but the pounding hymns. 
This bill of particulars is not quite fair, but it is true enough that the Puritan 
at his most ardent moments distrusted the higher pleasures of art as well as 
the lower pleasures of the flesh. I am tempted to take a cue from Macaulay, 
and note that what the Puritan objected to was not art, but the artist. Not all 
artists had by the seventeenth century become deliberately, and certainly had 
not yet become commercially, Bohemian. Even today, there is an occasional 
artist or poet who behaves like an insurance executive, and even is one. We 
shall come to this revolt of the artist against the Philistine again with the 
Romantics of the nineteenth century. The process of making the artist dis- 
reputable had, however, begun, and had gone far with the stage and was visible 
in the studio, and in most un-Puritan lands like Italy. The Puritan, who did 
not like disorder and what he thought was irresponsibility, had no patience 
with this incipient Bohemia. The artist has paid him back, and did not have 
to wait until the early twentieth century for his revenge. On the whole, from 
Hudibras on, the artists of the word have been harsh on the Puritan. Butler 
on the Puritans already sounds like the emancipated readers of Mencken: 

Compound for sins they are inclin'd to 
By damning those they have no mind to: 
Still so perverse and opposite, 
As if they worshipp'd God for spite. 12 

The hangers-on of the world of art, the social environment in which it 
thrived, also struck deep into the hates and fears of the Puritan. The English 
stage had produced the immortal Shakespeare, but even if the Puritan had 
been able to understand and accept the un-Christian realism of Shakespeare, 
what he could not stomach was the easygoing manners and morals of the play- 
house, audience as well as actors. As for the fine arts, they were in the Puri- 
tan's mind indelibly associated with the old church and the old nobility, both 
of which he had rejected. Still, no doubt one must try to get at the something 
else in the Puritan that made him distrust, perhaps fear, the arts. We are back 
again at the inner-directed man, fearful, above all, of loss of self-control, 
aware that this world is full of temptation, indeed, taught, and believing, that 
such temptation is no working out of natural sequences, but the direct, ever- 
present intervention of the Devil himself, whose eye, like God's, is ever on 
the sparrow though with very different aims. I have said above (p. 155) that 
much would look very different to us if we really thought, with the first Chris- 
is Samuel Butler, Hudibras, Part I, Canto I, lines 213-216. 


A History of Western Morals 

tians, that the world would end tomorrow or the next day. It would surely also 
look very different to us if we felt every time we had even a slight fantasy of 
doing something not approved by our conscience our superegos, if you like 
that the fantasy in itself was a sign that we were likely to spend eternity in 
fearful suffering. I am not maintaining that this belief of the Puritan was a 
reasonable belief, nor even that it was a useful belief, but merely that, given 
the Puritan's cultural inheritance, it is an understandable belief, indeed, I 
fear I must say, a "natural" belief. 

The lover of the high arts may still not be satisfied. Is not the Puritan's 
fear of art really pretty perverse at bottom, for do we not all know that high 
art, great art, is catharsis, an emptying of the soul of pettiness and evil, an 
elevating thing? Low art may stir the genitals, but high art, though perhaps 
only a John Mill would hold that it achieves a happy spiritual castration of 
the rapt appreciator, still has to the genitals a relation that can only be de- 
scribed in terms like transcendence, sublimation, ennoblement. Perhaps 
Dante, for one, knew better; or were Paolo and Francesca reading a work of 
low art that day? As always in this obstinate world obstinate to the work of 
the simplifying systematist both sides can appeal to the "facts." It is very 
hard to imagine anyone led astray from even Puritan morality by Oedipus 
Rex. But Tristan und Isolde? Give the Puritan his premises, and he has a case. 

Still another major interpretation of the Puritan ideal demands our atten- 
tion. Erich Fromm, who knows both the Marxist-Weber literature and the 
Freudian, holds that the way of life that came out of the Protestant Reforma- 
tion puts too great a strain on ordinary human nature. 13 The Reformation, he 
maintains, broke down the complex medieval network of social, economic, 
and religious institutions, ritual, and beliefs which combined to give the indi- 
vidual some material security and much spiritual security. The ordinary man 
in the Middle Ages knew where he stood, had, so to speak, to make to a 
minimum extent the kind of decision that puts a strain on him. In Riesman's 
terms, he was "tradition-directed." Then Luther and the rest of the reformers 
came along, working, it is true, in consonance with changes in the mode of 
production, and emancipated the individual from all or at least a great many 
of these restraints. They freed him. But to the psychologist looking back on 
the situation, it seems clear that for most men these medieval ways had been 
not so much restraints as supports. Such men did not really, in their uncon- 
scious, want to be free. To the sturdy, and exceptional, Protestant individ- 

13 Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom, New York, Farrar and Rinehart, 1941. 


The Reformation 

ualist, Lutheran doctrines such as justification by faith and the "priesthood 
of the believer" were challenges to do his best in this world without the 
priest's "interference," to work hard, to face the need to make decisions on 
his own, to be in matters of the spirit as well as in matters of business his own 

But the majority proved incapable of this exacting way of life. In purely 
economic terms, they had to put up with what amounted to exploitation by 
the stronger. It took a long time, and presocialist and socialist effort, before 
the workers once more could be organized. Psychologically, as well as institu- 
tionally, no really adequate substitute for the assurances that the medieval 
synthesis gave ordinary men was worked out in the West, with the result that 
in our own times the masses "escaped from freedom" into the arms of the 
totalitarian dictators of Right and Left, We shall have to face this problem of 
the moral difficulties of modern libertarian democracy in a later chapter. 
Most of us today, however, touched as we all are by some popular versions 
of psychology, are more likely to think of Protestantism in its active Puritan 
form in the seventeenth century as suppressing, not liberating, as putting on 
restraints, self-imposed by the good Puritan on himself, and, through blue 
laws, imposed on others. 14 Yet the psychological interpretation is not here 
inconsistent; for the good Frommian, the artificial and harsh external re- 
straints of later capitalist Puritanism were made necessary in part by the 
earlier loss to Luther and his allies of the natural and accepted supports which 
the old institutions and beliefs once gave the now-unsupported individual. 
Whether the new harsh codes were imposed by the Puritan on himself by his 
conscience or on the others by laws and institutions, the net result was that 
natural psychic drives or energies, driven back into the unconscious, took all 
sorts of revenges in psychoses, neuroses, maladjustments that had piled up to 
plague us now. We must then ask the question: Is it sensible to apply modern 
notions of "repression" and its evil consequences to our classical Puritan? 

The question cannot be satisfactorily answered. The relativist that dwells 
in every historian, comfortably or not, must insist that all modern psycho- 
logical theories or doctrines may turn out to be quite impermanent, that it is 
absurd to apply to the seventeenth century the fashionable ideas of the twen- 
tieth, and so on* And it is true that one can hardly imagine a seventeenth- 

14 1 use "blue laws" as a handy American term for all the complex Puritan attempts to 
"legislate private virtue." The reader should be warned that to the purist in matters 
historical the phrase means only a specific set of laws in seventeenth-century Connecti- 
cut See W. R Prince, "Peter's Blue Laws/' American Historical Association, Report, 


A History of Western Morals 

century Puritan on a modern psychoanalyst's couch. We shall never know 
what horrors of infantile experience lay behind Oliver Heywood's self- 

Oh my Lord, I am here at Thy footstool, a worthless worm, an unprofitable 
branch, a sinful wretch, fit for nothing but to be cast out as unsavory salt. 15 

At the very start, it may be urged that the problem is unreal. The Puritan, 
it may be argued, was not suppressing, but merely "controlling." Now that 
the first wave of popularized Freudiamsm has receded, we do not regard any 
and all interference with the child's, let alone the adult's, wishes to be sup- 
pression, and bad. We guide, control, even punish. There is a familiar 
semantic situation here, the complete clearing up of which would be difficult 
indeed: "suppression" will for a long time not lose for us its pejorative sense. 
Even so, I must insist that at least for such periods of Puritan dominance as 
the 1640*s in Britain, the rule of the saints in Geneva and in New England, 
and within the congregations themselves for much of these early centuries of 
the Reformation, "suppression" is the accurate, the necessary word. American 
traditions about early New England, molded still more by The Scarlet Letter 
and its like than by the debunkers of the 1920's, are not altogether mislead- 
ing; the Puritans said No. Calvin's own Geneva was so fully regulated that 
one wonders how even the political theorists could have dug libertarian 
influences out of pristine Calvinism. Here is a recent popular historian's 

To regulate lay conduct a system of comiciliary visits was established: one 
or another of the elders visited, yearly, each house in the quarter assigned to him, 
and questioned the occupants on all phases of their lives. Consistory and Council 
joined in the prohibition of gambling, card-playing, profanity, drunkenness, the 
frequenting of taverns, dancing (which was then enhanced by kisses and embraces) , 
indecent or irreligious songs, excess in entertainment, extravagance in living, im- 
modesty in dress. The allowable color and quantity of clothing, and the number 
of dishes permissible at a meal, were specified by law. Jewelry and lace were 
frowned upon. A woman was jailed for arranging her hair to an immoral height. 
Theatrical performances were limited to religious plays, and then these too were 
forbidden. Children were to be named not after saints in the Catholic calendar 
but preferably after Old Testament characters; an obstinate father served four 
days in prison for insisting on naming his son Claude instead of Abraham. Cen- 
sorship of the press was taken over from Catholic and secular precedents, and 

w Oliver Heywood, quoted in W. Notestein, Four Worthies, New Haven, Yale Uni- 
versity Press, 1957, p. 214. The whole essay on Heywood is worth reading as a good 
sampling of the minor Puritan divine. Heywood's language is the then-fashionable 


The Reformation 

enlarged (1560) : books of erroneous religious doctrine, or of immoral tendency, 
were banned; Montaigne's Essays and Rousseau's Entile were later to fall under 
this proscription. To speak disrespectfully of Calvin or the clergy was a crime. 
A first violation of these ordinances was punished with a reprimand, further viola- 
tion with fines, persistent violation with imprisonment or banishment. Fornication 
was to be punished with exile or drowning; adultery, blasphemy, or idolatry, with 
death. In one extraordinary instance a child was beheaded for striking its 
parents. 16 

This would seem to be almost the opposite of "freedom" in any sense, 
except for the few who made and enforced the laws. It is not that in ordinary 
Protestant societies the individual was left, in the sense the philosophical 
anarchist gives the word, "free"; it is, rather, that for the old medieval set 
of conformities there was substituted in Protestant countries a new one, one 
which in the Calvinist range of Protestantism was a great deal stricter, more 
repressive of ordinary human drives, than the old had been. The question then 
becomes: Was the new nexus of controls unsuited to the task of cementing 
a going society? 

In its extremist forms at Geneva, in Holland, in New England, in the 
English Puritan Revolution, I think the answer must be yes. At any rate, by 
pragmatic test, these societies in their strict form did not endure. The rule of 
the saints at its fullest anywhere was an attempt to push and pull poor human 
beings to heights and they are heights, not depths they appear to the 
realistic observer not to have been designed for. The rule of the saints I have 
elsewhere classified with the rule of the Jacobins and of the "old" Bolsheviks, 
as the effort under the pricks of an active religious drive to make this earth 
some kind of a heaven. 17 As the Puritan drive slowly subsided, as the greatly 
moderated Calvinist groups became part of conventional Western society, 
the moral implications of their way of life change. To these we must come 
later, for they set their stamp no longer by any means quite the stamp of 
Calvin himself on a great deal of the nineteenth-century West, and in 
particular on the English-speaking parts of the West. 

But even at the height of their drive to their ideal, there is no clear evi- 
dence that Calvinism "produced" more of what we call mental disturbances 
than earlier phases of Western society. I do not think that Oliver Heywood 
was insane, or even neurotic. Statistics, as I have had to remark often, are 
just not good enough to test so woolly a thesis as that Puritan suppressions 

i* Will Durant, The Reformation, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1957, p. 474. 

" See my The Anatomy of Revolution, New York, Norton, 1938; in Vintage Books, 

New York, Knopf, 1957, especially Chap. VH. 


A History of Western Morals 

produced mental disturbances on a large scale. For one thing, since they were 
small societies, for the most part, and men are mobile, the most recalcitrant 
could and did escape, in New England to life among the Indians of the 
frontier, in Europe to neighboring lands. For another, we must remember 
the vulgar German proverb "The soup is never eaten as hot as it is cooked." 
The Americans of the 1920's were not the first "scofflaws" under this kind of 
prohibition; even at Geneva, one could commit adultery, and procreate 
bastards; in England, a large country for those days, traces of Merry England 
survived here and there all through the Puritan revolution. It is impossible, 
save in inverted Utopias like Brave New World and 7 954, to repress all of the 
people all of the time. 

In summary, the Puritan ideal, even when pushed into fanaticism, is at 
the very least one of the fascinating efforts human beings have made to tame 
themselves. The romanticist is no doubt right: we are indeed wild animals, 
barely domesticated enough to keep our species going. But the dream of an 
ordered society keeps recurring, spurs men on to transcend themselves and 
history. Puritanism is by no means the harshest of these dreams, and, in its 
effort to make itself real, by no means the least effective. Liberal cant in this 
country, which has shut so many off from so wide an area of human experi- 
ence ("the liberal is a man who will not read anything he is going to disagree 
with"), has been especially unfair toward the Puritans. They deserve better 
from us; we can perhaps learn from them almost as much from the Zuni, the 
Hopi, or the Samoans. 


Puritanism, Calvinism, though I believe they are central to the moral 
experience of Protestantism, by no means exhaust the varieties of such experi- 
ence to be found in the Reformation. Once more using a convenient if imper- 
fect dualism, we may distinguish between "hard" and "soft" Protestantism, 
or, indeed, Christianity. This distinction is not by any means that suggested by 
Paul's contrast of Letter and Spirit, nor that between staying in this world and 
fleeing from it, nor is it quite that between the organizer (Gregory the Great, 
Bernard of Clairvaux) and the withdrawn mystic (St. John of the Cross). 
The soft Protestant is no wastrel, nor is he by any means a rationalist. But he 
shies off from the harsher and more aristocratic doctrines of Calvinism 
unconditional predestination, not to speak of such refinements as infant 
damnation, restriction of God's grace to a very few elect, and the Stoic bearing 
that goes with Puritan dignity. Though they flourished more particularly in 


The Reformation 

the eighteenth century, the origins of these softer Protestants go back to the 
very beginnings of Protestantism. Already in the sixteenth century, Merino 
Simons, founder of the Mennonites, anticipates much with his doctrine of a 
"new birth," itself a signal of salvation. German Pietists, British Methodists, 
French Quietists the latter formally Catholics, but hardly orthodox are 
almost always on the soft side of the line. The Quakers, those peculiar people, 
have their soft affiliations, conspicuously in their pacifism and their escha- 
that their emotions were not those of the romanticist in revolt. They were 
optimistic and truly democratic Calvinists, as in a sense they are. But the 
taxonomy of Protestant sects is a bewildering task. The Methodists had their 
Calvinist wing, and they, the Baptists, and other sects were, in matters of 
private morality, drink, dancing, card-playing, often quite as "puritanical" 
as the saints had been. The Bible was their common source book. They did 
not precisely welcome the Age of Reason. They, and not Yankee Congrega- 
tionalists, and certainly not Boston Unitarians, are in twentieth-century 
America the last of the Puritans. 

Positively, these softer Protestants do have in common an acceptance of 
some form of the doctrine of free will, and at least a tendency toward, if not 
precisely universalism each sect believed firmly it was the true form of 
Christianity at least a belief that God had basically good intentions toward 
the human race and would welcome a significant increase in the number of 
the saved. What they have most conspicuously in common is an emotional pi- 
ety which in their meetings might rise to the excitements their enemies of the 
Age of Reason regarded as indecent, and described with the horrid word "en- 
thusiasm." They were not for the most part wild men, however, and it is clear 
that their emotions were not those of the romanticist in revolt. They were 
simple people, mostly from the humbler ranks of society both in Britain and 
in Germany, and in the North American colonies. Lecky thought that the 
Methodist movement in Britain probably saved that country from grave 
difficulties with its lower classes, who had to bear the brunt of the Industrial 
Revolution; the miners, the workers in the new industrial towns, the deprived 
village laborers, found in the sharing of religious emotions, in the whole 
conservative fabric of Methodism, a satisfaction that saved them from the 
allurements of French-inspired revolutionaries. This thesis was expanded 
and extended by the French historian Elie Halevy. 18 

18 W. E. H. Lecky, A History of England in the Eighteenth Century, New York, Apple- 
ton, 1888, Vol. H, pp. 691-692; Elie Halevy, A History of the English People in the 
Nineteenth Century, London, Benn, 1949, Vol. I, England in 1815, pp. 424-428. Lecky 
could hardly have picked up the Marxist tag about "opium of the people," and Halevy 
no longer needed it 


A History of Western Morals 

Though the pietistic sects attracted a by no means negligible number 
of the evangelically inclined among the educated classes Wesley was an 
Oxford man, and Zinzendorf a count they must be numbered among those 
who have pushed Christianity away from the intellect and toward the emo- 
tions. Their theology was relatively simple, their clergy often uneducated, and 
their distrust of the highly educated great indeed. But this very anti-intel- 
lectualism helped them resist much more successfully than did the hard 
Protestants the pressures of the Enlightenment. The Puritans' contempt for 
the damned of this world, their self-insulation from common sense, their 
intense desire to remake human conduct, would seem on the surface to be 
more proof against the natural science, the rationalism fondly supposing itself 
common sense, the often sincere belief in toleration of the Enlightenment, 
than would the gentle piety of the Methodists and Pietists. And no doubt in 
its first fire, its active stage, Puritanism was quite safe from pure rationalism. 
But the Puritan was essentially an intellectual; he had to think, to understand, 
and his warfare with himself was in part the war of the head with the heart. 
When the active phase of Puritanism was over, its prosperous third and fourth 
generations, no longer driven to bring heaven to earth, began the process of 
reconciliation with this earth as it stood, a reconciliation that brought some of 
them to Unitarianism or freethinking. The intellectual history of Boston is an 
excellent illustration of this movement. 

Not so with the pietist sects. They not only resisted the rationalist current 
of the Age of Reason; they for the most part also resisted the closely inter- 
flowing current of sentimental humanitarianism. They damped the hell-fires 
a bit, but they did not extinguish them. They worked with the poor, the 
unhappy, the wicked, and welcomed their conversion or even their reforma- 
tion, but they did not altogether equate sin with a bad socio-economic environ- 
ment. In fact, they believed in original sin, not in the natural goodness and/ 
or reasonableness of man. The intellectuals have not much liked them. They 
are not very exciting, but they were numerous, and perhaps a useful brake 
on our madly progressing modern world. They are still with us, almost wholly 
apart from the intellectuals, almost wholly, as real living persons, unknown 
to the intellectuals. 

Protestant tradition, naturally enough, has held that the Reformation re- 
formed, that human conduct improved under Protestant successes, that even 
the Catholics, tardily learning a needed lesson, put their house in somewhat 


The Reformation 

better order in what the Protestants call the "Counter Reformation." The 
freethinkers of the Enlightenment had a bit more trouble in estimating the 
moral value of the Reformation. They felt that the Protestants had at least 
been an entering wedge for the Enlightenment, and they discerned in Protes- 
tant attacks on Romish superstition and corruption much of their own senti- 
ments; still, they could and did read, and they realized that early Protes- 
tantism was Christian, in fact, superstition. And, of course, debunking has 
been long an irresistible temptation to all sorts of historians, including the 
Enlightened. We may then start with some of these doubts about the reforms 
of the Reformation. 

The complex most consonant with the temper of our age goes back at least 
to William Cobbett, a testy radical journalist of early nineteenth-century 
England, who wrote a history of the Reformation in England. 19 Cobbett has 
been expanded and extended by the positivists, by the Marxists, by Weber, 
Tawney, and Fromm, and, naturally enough but perhaps not altogether 
wisely in such company, by Catholics. At its broadest, this line of attack 
maintains that Protestantism substituted for the communally responsible 
medieval society with its guilds, its organized charities, its notions of a "just 
price," its obligation to make life as secure as possible even for the poor, the 
modern unrestrained scramble for wealth. Released from these good medieval 
Catholic Christian restraints, the followers of the reformers, above all, the 
new modern territorial rulers and their hangers-on, grabbed all they could, 
no matter who suffered. Henry VIII in England suppressed the monasteries 
and confiscated their wealth, which he used to reward his courtiers and build 
up to support his own upstart dynasty the nouveau riche Tudor nobility and 
gentry who we mistakenly think were real nobles of Norman lineage. The 
German princelets, the Dutch burghers, all got their share of the spoils, and 
the French Huguenot nobles would have got theirs if they could obviously 
it was hope of spoils that attracted them to the Calvinist allegiance. 

The new rich, the attack continues, in spite of their canting Protestantism, 
which did not last very long anyway, conducted themselves in matters of 
private morality at least as badly as the rich usually do. Public morality in 
politics, already undermined by the unscrupulous power politics of the Italian 
Renaissance, was surely not improved in the North by the Reformation. 

i* A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland: Showing How That 
Event Has Impoverished and Degraded the Main Body of the People in Those Conn- 
tries. In a Series of Letters, Addressed to All Sensible and Just Englishmen, London, 


A History of Western Morals 

Public morality in economic life, as we have noted, was, according to this 
thesis, greatly worsened. Now the limits were off in competition, and the Devil 
took the hindmost. The new wealth came from commerce and investment, not 
primarily from land; its possessors lacked the steadying customary morality 
and the sense of duty to their dependents that the old class had had. "As truth 
spread," wrote J. A. Froude, "charity and justice languished in England." 20 

There are two obvious criticisms to be made of this general thesis. First, 
and simpler, is the criticism we have already made of the Weber thesis, that 
whatever the facts of change from the medieval way of life to the modern 
and these facts are no doubt partly those of an expanding economy, and the 
transfer of the agon, the competitive spirit, from the life of the knight and 
the cleric to the life of the courtier allied with new capitalistic wealth 
these changes greatly antedated the posting of Luther's Ninety-five Theses in 
1517. Protestantism in some of its phases was part of these changes, and 
was affected and made possible by these earlier changes. What I have said in 
comment on the Weber thesis holds for this extension of his thesis: unscrupu- 
lous "Renaissance" politics in the struggles of the twelfth and thirteenth 
centuries between pope and emperor, not to mention the Hundred Years' 
War, grave neglect of the poor by their superiors, clear evidence of popular 
unrest all through the fourteenth century, beginnings of the ejection of farming 
peasants by "capitalist" landlords anxious to make more money by sheep 
grazing in fifteenth-century England, very modern "class struggle" condi- 
tions, the popolo grasso against the popolo minuto, the revolt of the ciompi 
in the Florentine trecento the list of these unidyllic conflicts of the "serene" 
Middle Ages could be long indeed. 21 

Second, and more complicated, there is the criticism based on doubts as to 
whether there was in fact a general increase in conventional immorality among 
the ruling classes, a general increase in suffering, deprivation, neglect, among 
the ruled. We shall have in a final chapter to attempt to put into understand- 
able order those changes in actual group moral standards and conduct that 
we can roughly establish. There are such changes, but they will probably not 
turn out to make the kind of sense the proponents of the thesis we are here 
commenting on try to make. There are sudden and usually impermanent col- 
lective accesses of puritanical conduct the brief rule of Savonarola, for 

20 Henry VIII, Vol. I, p. 74. Even though Froude was a Victorian and a bitter anti- 
Catholic, I suspect there is irony in that "truth.** 

21 For the Florentine class struggles, see Iris Origo, Merchant of Prato, pp. 66-67. 


The Reformation 

example. There are, at least in modern times, accesses of particularly striking 
unpuritanical conduct among those who can afford luxury, often reaction to 
the opposing kind of excess, such as the period of the Stuart Restoration in 
Britain after the Puritan Commonwealth. There are, to anticipate a bit, all 
sorts of long and short "cycles," varying with different classes or other groups 
of a given society. Ethics, conduct, morals do change between 1250 and 1700, 
but not as simply as the critics of Protestant morality make out. 

As to the general moral level of those who could afford to live loosely 
and many who tried to live as their betters lived Huizinga's Waning of the 
Middle Ages shows clearly that the luxury, the overrefinement, the fascination 
with death and corruption, the morbid excesses of the sixteenth century are 
all present in the fourteenth and fifteenth. The same holds true of the suffer- 
ings of the poor, and of the relation between the rich and the poor. This last 
relation was never, at the height of the feudal-manorial system, one of mutual 
Christian loving-kindness. The class struggle, which the Marxists are perfectly 
right in insisting is a constant of Western history, was intensified and made 
more open, but not by the Protestant Reformation, for the process goes back 
much further in time. Clearly, individuals and sometimes large groups did 
suffer in these changes. There were evicted peasants, victims of technological 
change, victims of the bitter foreign and civil wars, which also antedate 
Protestantism, though here they are clearly stepped up by the new hatreds 
Protestantism brought with it. But, as I have already noted, real income, even 
real income for the many, the "people," subject to the ups and downs of a 
reasonably free market economy and to the grave local shortages inevitable 
in those days of primitive transportation and primitive economic administra- 
tion and no doubt to many other variables, has been going up, on the whole, 
ever since about 1000 A.D. I do not think that the most morally outraged 
economic historians have shown, again on the average and over the long 
run, that "workers," "proletarians," even "peasants," any "lower class," has 
been wholly excluded at any time from at least a share of this increased real 

But has not one of the marks of the modern world been the unhappiness, 
the discontentedness, of large numbers of those at the base of the social 
pyramid? Is not Fromm perhaps right, after all, that the upshot of the Protes- 
tant Reformation has been to leave the masses forlorn, spiritually uprooted, 
victims of a freedom to change they could not adapt themselves to, mass 
men deprived of all that makes for human dignity? The broader implications 
of this very broad generalization we must face in a later chapter. In its specific 


A History of Western Morals 

application to the Protestant Reformation I think the thesis cannot be well 
established, and certainly needs many qualifications. 

First, in terms of charity, seen as what we now call social service, the 
situation was not nearly as bad as some historians, like Cobbett or even 
Froude, have made it out to be. Even in England, the Elizabethan Poor Law 
of 1601 is merely the culmination at the center of national government of a 
long process whereby the secular authority took over the major share of 
responsibility for those we nowadays piously and democratically call the 
"wrtrferprivileged." Once more, Puritanism is in principle harsh and disap- 
proving toward the poor. Like that last Puritan, George Bernard Shaw, most 
Puritans felt the poor must be undeserving or God would not have made them 
poor (for Shaw, it was lack of the Life Force that made them poor) . But 
here I think we might reverse the usual order of the puzzling relation between 
principle and practice; the Puritan did better by the poor than his preaching 
would show. I grant that he did not love them (does anybody?), but he did 
not let them starve. 

Again, over the whole wide range of Puritanism, above all, in its less 
intense forms, it can be argued that men got at least the satisfaction of bring- 
ing the ideal and the real into closer approximation than has been usual in 
Christianity. Grant the lapses in conduct the novelists build on, grant the 
aesthetic poverty of the ideal, grant much of all the anti-Puritans say, it is 
still true that Puritans lived in communities where much that the general voice 
of the West has long regarded as virtue was practiced, where much that that 
voice has regarded as vice was kept at a minimum. The Puritan way of life 
for many approximated the Puritan ideal. Plain, not ascetic, living was the 
common lot; high thinking, exhortatory and introspective, was by no means 
an uncommon lot. The Puritan was far too self-conscious, at bottom too 
touched with a kind of rationalist drive, to take the label "primitive"; he was 
not even, as some of the softer eighteenth-century humanitarians became, a 
conscious seeker after a primitive past. (The Protestant appeal to the Bible 
and to "gospel Christianity" seems to me by no means genuine primitivism 
even in groups like the Mennonites and the Quakers.) But the Puritan way of 
life does have analogies with that of simple, well-disciplined, tradition-directed 
societies, where from top to bottom there is no luxurious living, no con- 
spicuous consumption, no open vices, no intellectual vices like irony and 

It could not or, at any rate, it did not last. Puritanism had its part in 
the Victorian ideal and reality, and it is not without its part in our own lives. 


The Reformation 

But the Puritanism of the seventeenth century has ceased to live. The Marxist 
is no doubt, as usually, at least partly right; the very productivity of a Puritan 
society was bound to increase wealth, and to set before the successful 
temptations to luxurious living they could not withstand. But the Puritan 
respect for education, indeed, for the life of the intellect, was also a danger 
to the Puritan way of life. If men's "lower" appetites and feelings tend to lead 
them to the vulgar vices, their "higher" intellectual drives tend to lead them to 
even more dangerous and more varied vices to originality, to the high disgust 
we call in America "liberalism," to cleverness and irony, to that attitude, most 
objectionable to the Puritan, for which we must, since it is usually such a 
thing, use the sophomoric word "sophistication." In a sense most important 
of all, in the specific historical situation of the West in the seventeenth century, 
to encourage the free use of the intellect and to encourage the intellect at all 
is to tempt it to free thinking meant to encourage the development of 
modern natural science. And, again, whatever it might or ought to have done, 
natural science has proved in fact the greatest dissolvent of the cosmology 
central not only to Puritanism but to all Christianity. Perhaps the central 
element of the "Protestant ethic" that helped make our world of mid-twentieth 
century was not the glorification of hard work and of worldly success, but the 
glorification of the intellect. Plain living the Puritan could often stand without 
yielding to temptation; but high thinking proved too much for him. 

We may use a more concrete and perhaps more suggestive metaphor. The 
Puritan society was, though less simply so, one like the Spartan, the early 
Roman, the feudal lords of the early Middle Ages in some of their aspects, 
a society of lions. But the Puritans, though they disapproved of the morals 
of the foxes, were not without some admiration for the brains of the foxes; 
or, as some might prefer to put it, the Puritans themselves as men of business, 
the men Weber depicts, and finally as men of politics, were themselves foxes. 
In the human, if not in the animal world, the fox ultimately destroys the 
lion. 22 


To return to our starting point, whatever its ramifications in politics and 
economics, the Reformation of the sixteenth century, both Protestant and 

22 The metaphor is Machiavellf s. It is developed at length by Pareto, whose lions are 
conservative, tradition-directed aristocrats guided by sentiments he calls "residues of 
persistent aggregates," whose foxes are innovating, clever, unscrupulous leaders guided 
by sentiments he calls "residues of instincts for combinations,*' It is hard to plunge 
into Pareto; but see bis The Mind and Society, New York, Harcourt, Brace, 1935, para. 
2178, 1480. 


A History of Western Morals 

Catholic, was in the minds of many of its leaders, and their followers, too, an 
effort to renew the moral crusading spirit Christianity is born with. Some of 
them who can be sure? were perhaps inspired by a stepping up of that 
spirit into a heresy most dangerous and yet endemic in Christianity, a heresy 
deeper even than Manichaean dualism, a heresy anticipating that of the 
eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Some of them may have hoped to destroy 
evil on earth, to "cure" evil, a task the moral realist finds as meaningless as 
the physician would find the "curing" of death. At any rate, if you want to 
measure the success of the Reformation by the degree to which it turned all 
men into morally perfect beings, you can say quite simply that the Reforma- 
tion was a failure. 

If you take a modest standard and ask what specific reforms were 
relatively successful, you get a different answer. Much that outraged the 
reformers in the church of the late fifteenth century was ended, and has 
never come back in so scandalous a form. The Catholic Reformation was a 
striking success. The Roman papal court that so shocked Luther, and not 
only Luther, has never returned. It is no doubt impossible, and perhaps 
undesirable, to eliminate entirely the politician from the ecclesiastical adminis- 
trator; but the vices symbolized for us all by the Borgias cannot possibly 
persist for long in any Christian clergy, and they have not persisted at Rome. 
The Catholic Reformation was a renewal all along the line, renewal of mis- 
sionary zeal as the geographical discoveries opened up new worlds, renewal 
of organized social work as new orders filled with charitable zeal were 
founded, renewal of confidence that inspired the counterattack so successful 
in Central and Eastern Europe. There were relapses, even among the clergy, 
as the Enlightenment brought temptations of a different sort, and as the old 
ones were, at least for the upper clergy, renewed in an atmosphere like that of 
the French ancien regime. Yet even for France, the state of the church in 1789 
does not look to modern research anywhere nearly as bad as it looked to the 
French revolutionaries and their faithful historians a degree of indifference, 
yes, much ignorance and incompetence among the poorly paid lower clergy, 
but nothing like the fleshly corruption of the fifteenth century. 23 

This Catholic Reformation, be it noted, was a moral reform in a church 
that at the Council of Trent firmly refused to change its theology or its govern- 
ment Even the rather extreme extension of the doctrine of good works which 

23 Pierre de la Gorce, Histoire Religieuse de la Revolution Frangaise, Paris, Librairie 
Plon, 1925; Andre LatreiUe, L'Eghse Catholique et la Revolution Fran$aise, Paris, 
Librairie Hachette, 1946. 


The Reformation 

had started Luther off, the sale of indulgences, was corrected in practice rather 
than in theory, for at Trent the fathers decided that there was indeed a 
treasury of good works on which mortals under proper conditions might draw. 
The Catholic Church has not in matters of ultimate philosophical concern 
been quite the monolithic survival of the Middle Ages some both inside and 
outside it like to maintain it has been, but in comparison with Protestantism 
it has certainly resisted the later complexes of heresies I shall here call simply 
"optimistic-rationalist-humanitarian" and to which I shall shortly return in 
considering the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. 

As for the Protestants, they, too, failed to cure evil. They may, as a man 
like Tawney thinks, have added to the miseries, and the relative number, of 
the poor, have set up a new and worse Pharisaical middle class. They may 
have added to the number of what the modern psychologist would consider 
the unnecessarily self-tortured. They may have condemned many a fine artist 
to mute ingloriousness or vain rebellion. They may have been most respon- 
sible for the perhaps dangerous multiplicity of modern Westerners on all 
matters of ultimate philosophical concern. These are all most debatable 
propositions, and I feel wholly justified in putting them in the conditional 
mood. As the reader will know, I incline to think that in all these matters the 
requisition against Protestantism has been drawn up too strongly in recent 
years. But no one in his senses will accuse the Protestants of encouraging the 
Borgias in their midst. The Puritans, in fact, were for the most part reason- 
ably sometimes most unreasonably pure. Even the conservative estab- 
lished churches, the Anglican and the Lutheran, though not unfairly accused 
of Erastianism at times, though they have always had numerous conven- 
tionally un-Christian Christians, have also never been conventionally corrupt. 
To a Kierkegaard, the nineteenth-century Lutheran Church was truly cor- 
rupt; but Kierkegaard was sicker, or madder, or more Godlike, than almost 
anyone in the long record of Christianity. He needed (he third-century desert, 
but had only nineteenth-century Denmark. To all but the Kierkegaards and 
their lesser likes, the Protestant, like the Catholic, Reformation was a true re- 
form; in both, it seems likely that the level of laymen's conduct was raised 
somewhat; in both, the open scandal of a clergy living in clear and simple sins 
of the flesh was ended, at least in the West. 


The Renaissance 

If ever an elite, fully conscious of its own merits, sought to segregate itself from 
the vulgar herd and live life as a game of artistic perfection, that was the circle 
of choice Renaissance spirits. 1 

ALL CONCEPTS OF MORAL EXCELLENCE are aristocratic, for their holders 
know well that the many do not live up to them. Even the most innocent of 
American democrats knows that, at the very best, most of the people have 
hitherto been fooled most of the time. There is, however, a great difference 
between two kinds of Western aristocracies, well brought out in the contrast 
between the Renaissance and the Reformation. Huizinga is quite right: the 
choice spirits of the Renaissance, the men of virtu, the humanists, the 
courtiers, asked only that the many not trouble them. In a few circles like 
that of Pico della Mirandola there was a vague, Platonic-Utopian feeling that 
the whole world might be much nicer if everyone knew Plato, but there really 
was no true reforming zeal in these people. These aristocrats of the soul and 
body not only did not dream of making the many into men of virtu, of learn- 
ing, of civility; most of them did not worry at all about the conduct of the 
many, as long as they were not themselves interfered with. 

The Protestant reformers, more particularly at the Calvinist center of 
Protestantism, were, as their enemies have always loved to point out, aris- 
tocrats, elitists, spiritual snobs. The elect were few, and knew it; the damned 

i Huizinga, Homo Ludens, p. 180. 


The Renaissance 

were many, and were kept constantly aware of their unhappy state by the few 
saved. Here, put with no real malice on my part, is the clue to the difference 
between these two aristocratic attitudes. At the very lowest point, the Puritan 
saint could not be indifferent to the conduct of the damned the predestined 
multitude, if only because, as a Puritan divine said, their conduct stank in 
the nostrils of the faithful. The Puritan may have felt he could not save the 
many, but he certainly could not let them sin in peace. Actually, as I have 
insisted, his practice was much more hopefully melioristic and Christian than 
his theory. He wanted his fellows to behave themselves, and he did his best 
to make them do so. As for the less heroic forms of Protestantism, they never 
quite lost, any more than did the Catholic Church, the basic Christian drive to 
achieve a society in which all men should live up to the aristocratic Christian 
ethical ideal but to achieve it without violence, and without the heroism that 

The Renaissance return to the Greeks and Romans, then, was not simply a 
return to round arches, Ciceronian Latin, Plato, and the rest; nor was it a 
return to anything so vague as a healthy paganism, the spirit of individual 
freedom, the revolt against authority. It was an attempt made by another aris- 
tocratic minority to live again the life of the beautiful-and-good, the Aris- 
totelian Golden Mean, the enjoying but not uncomfortably original, not 
worried, not frustrated mind in the graceful body, the life recommended by 
the Just Cause of Aristophanes, "redolent of ease," the serene divorce from 
sweaty reality so nicely reflected in my quotation from Seneca (see p. 116). 
"Courtesy," wrote Paolo da Certaldo in the fifteenth century, "is nothing but 
the [Golden] Mean, and the Mean endures." 2 But the mean in this sense is 
about as far from "average" as one can get. 

Now the men of the Renaissance did, like their Greek models of the 
Great Age, make a real effort to combine in one the excellences of the two 
major Western aristocratic roles, so often separated in fact and in ideal. 
They sought to be best with their bodies and best with their minds, to com- 
bine the warrior-statesman and the priest-artist-intellectual. They were not 
by any means as successful as their modern admirers have made them out to 
be. The Renaissance scholar-humanist, unaided by our modern lexicons, 
reference books, indexes, and well-catalogued libraries, had so colossal a 

2 Paolo da Certaldo, Libro di buoni costumi, ed. by Aldredo Schiaffini, Florence, Felice 
Le Monnier, 1945, no. 82, p. 79: Cortesia non e altro se non misura, e misura dura. 
There are touches of Polonius in this little fourteenth-century book of moral advice, 
much folk wisdom and common Christian sense, and faint echoes of the beautiful-and- 


A History of Western Morals 

task that he can hardly be expected to have had time to develop his body. 
Some of them did their best, but on the whole the European scholar was as 
tied to his desk as the Schoolmen had been. Indeed, only in England was the 
attempt to bring together in higher education the young of both aristocracies, 
the doers-to-be and the thinkers-to-be, destined to survive in partial success 
in Oxford, Cambridge, and the public schools. On the other side, the men of 
virtu had nothing for the exercise of their bodies quite as good as the Greeks 
had had in their games and their wars. The knightly tournament persisted, 
more than slightly ridiculous, in the sixteenth century of the High Renais- 
sance in Northern and Western Europe; the hunt and youthful games were 
available. But gunpowder had begun to spoil the sport of war, or, at least, to 
spoil its aristocratic side, and there was never a continental equivalent of the 
playing fields of Eton. As for the artists, their favorite sporting exercise was 
usually taken in bed. 

We shall, then, defying the tradition that makes the Man of the Renais- 
sance a glorious union of the artist, scholar, and man of action, do well to 
consider separately the ideals of the humanist and of the man of vinii. Of 
course, the two ideals worked often in the consciousness of the same man; 
more particularly., the artist was likely to try to have the best of both worlds 
sometimes, as with a Benvenuto Cellini, with a degree of success. At the 
court of Lorenzo de* Medici, the artists and the men of letters strove for 
courtesy and virtu, and the courtiers strove to be humanists. Symonds, 
Burckhardt, and the other lovers of the Renaissance they were usually also 
haters of the nineteenth century were not wholly wrong: these Renaissance 
athletes of the spirit tried hard to be Apollos. They tried, perhaps, a little 
too hard. 


The humanist ideal gets neatly, but, as always, imperfectly, embodied in a 
culture hero, Erasmus. The humanist, who was a scholar and often also a 
man of letters and a moralist, was not what we know as a natural scientist. 
If, like Erasmus, he were distinguished enough, he did, however, acquire 
among all interested in formal culture something like the prestige of the 
physicist today. Had there been newspapers and news weeklies, Erasmus and 
a few others would have figured prominently on their pages, as an Einstein 
or a Bohr has in our day. How far down into the masses this repntation went 
in the sixteenth century is hard to measure. There was hardly yet in the 


The Renaissance 

West, even in Florence, Paris, or London, the equivalent of the big sophisti- 
cated cities of antiquity, Athens at its height, Alexandria, Rome, no doubt, 
certainly Constantinople at the height of the figjht over Christian heresies, 
where your man in the street is a kind of debased intellectual, lively and 
interested in debate on matters of taste, philosophy, or religion, almost, but 
not quite, as much as in sport and scandal. 

The figure of Erasmus suggests some negatives about the humanist ideal, 
negatives with which we may frankly begin our attempt to understand the 
ideal as it really was, for they must be cleared out of the way. The humanist 
was no democrat; he had no illusions that Plato would do for the many. It is 
a commonplace that the first few generations of humanists after the invention 
of printing felt toward that mechanizing of a beautiful art the kind of scorn 
the artist has ever since felt for the machine-made. Printed books they dis- 
liked perhaps also because such readily distributed learning threatened to 
make learning easy and not a rare distinction. They need hardly have wor- 
ried. The humanist was proud of the skills he had laboriously acquired, 
proud to the point the democrat would call snobbishness. These skills were 
the traditional skills of grammarian, literary historian, critic, philosopher, 
amassing bits from the already immense body of work in Latin and Greek; 
apart from a touch of archaeology, then at its very beginnings, they were not 
the skills of experimentation, concrete observation, case histories, in short, 
they were not the skills of the scientist who dirties his hands. The humanist 
was not a man who had nobly and in anticipation of the modern world 
emancipated himself from the authority of custom, the printed word, the 
accepted; only, unlike the Schoolmen, he did cut away as far as he could 
patristic and medieval tradition, and went back directly to his beloved 
Greeks and Romans. He merely substituted one authority for another. To- 
ward the Schoolmen a rebel, toward the giants of classical antiquity he was 
the humble disciple. 

But he was humble only toward the long dead and their works. He was 
contemptuous of his medieval predecessors, whom he regarded as benighted 
barbarians ignorant of good Latin and of any Greek, subservient to the repu- 
tation of an Aristotle they had never read in the original. Toward his con- 
temporaries he displayed that curious form of the Western struggle for prize 
which prevails among the learned, and which has rarely been as naked, as 
vehement, as Homeric, since the great era of the humanists. Erasmus himself 
was a vain 'and prickly scholar, justifiably aware of his gifts and his prestige, 
but certainly guilty of the great Christian sin of pride. Here, as a sample of 


A History of Western Morals 

the controversial manners of the age an extreme one, no doubt is Poggio 
Bracciolini addressing his fellow humanist Tomasio Filelfo: 

Thou stinking he-goat! thou horned monster! thou malevolent detractor . . . 
May the divine vengeance destroy thee as an enemy of the virtuous, a parricide 
who endeavorest to ruin the wise and good by lies and slanders, and the most 
false and foul imputations. If thou must be contumelious, write thy satires against 
the suitors of thy wife discharge the putridity of thy stomach upon those who 
adorn thy forehead with horns. 3 

It is true that these quarrels of humanists have a touch of the unbuttoned 
that one does not find in later and purely academic versions not even in 
the nineteenth-century German version of the entremangerie professorate. 
There is Renaissance gusto in all but the driest of them, a sense of emancipa- 
tion rare in the scholarly tradition. This same Poggio Bracciolini, when in 
middle age he found it prudent to marry, "was obliged to dismiss a mistress 
who had born him twelve sons and two daughters." 4 

Yet for the historian of morals the important thing about the Renaissance 
humanist is that in him it is possible to see, faintly indeed it is not more 
than the old reliable small cloud on the horizon the beginnings of the 
alienation of the intellectual that is so important a phase of our own moral 
climate. The attitude described in that nowadays-familiar phrase is not alto- 
gether absent from the ancient Greco-Roman culture. But not even in Plato, 
or the Roman satirists, or in Lucian does one see the formation of a corpo- 
rate spirit, of what we call a "class/' aware of itself and of its differences 
from any other social and economic grouping, convinced that it does not 
really have its rightful place at the head of all other groups. Among the 
Renaissance humanists there is by no means the sentiment that vulgar busi- 
nessmen are doing what the humanists ought to do; there are no leagues of 
artists against the Philistines, the bourgeois. We must not deal in anachro- 
nistic fancies. But there is a strong consciousness of kind, a sense of belong- 
ing to a privileged group, a group so privileged not by birth but by talents, 
and disciplined by hard work, in short, an aristocracy of the mind, an elite. 
That aristocracy was at the height of the Renaissance treated very well indeed 
by the other aristocracy, that of the body, of political and economic power. 
There is not yet alienation. But it will come, and the successors of the 
humanists and artists of the Renaissance will be ready for it. 

8 All this, of course, in good Latin. Translated in M. W. Shepherd, Life of Poggio Brae- 
ciolini, 2nd ed., Liverpool. 1837, p. 282. 
4 Shepberd, Bracciolini , p. 282. 


The Renaissance 

Among the artists, there is clearly in the Renaissance that sense of not 
being held to the conventions and decencies of ordinary life that was later 
caricatured in nineteenth-century "Bohemianism." Again, the word itself is 
an anachronism. Not even late medieval circles like the one that produced 
Villon, though they were raffish and disreputable enough, are much like the 
self-conscious, virtuously loose-living modern Left Bankers, Greenwich Vil- 
lagers, or beat North Beachers. For one thing, there was no Victorian respect- 
ability to revolt from that is, no organized and powerful middle class. 
Cellini himself, for all his crimes and disorders, so proudly reported in his 
autobiography, is no Bohemian. Yet the signs of what was to come are there, 
as they are among the scholars. The artist is the man set apart to do great 
things, the man made to break rules, the man who cannot be expected to 
put up with the dullness of life. He is still the greatly honored Michelangelo, 
still the Protean Leonardo da Vinci, still, even as a minor artist, the Cellini 
who hobnobs with a king of France. His successors will not take as kindly to 
their middle-class patrons. 

Once more, and at the risk of being unduly tedious, I must point out how 
thoroughly the Renaissance ideal of humanist and artist bears the stamp of 
the struggle to prevail in an intense competition. I would not for a moment 
contest the fact that the scholar and the artist were inspired by lofty ideals of 
Truth and Beauty. I am willing to grant that it is nobler, more useful to 
mankind, altogether morally better, to produce the best piece of statuary, the 
best critical edition of Aeschylus, the best plan for St Peter's, than it is to 
run the fastest race, knock out the most opponents in prize fights, joust best 
in a tourney. But we should not forget, as we tend to forget when we feel the 
prizes of a contest are noble, that the contest still was a fight, that there were 
more losers than winners, that the winner almost certainly enjoyed winning, 
that, in short, the Sermon on the Mount was no part of it all. The Renais- 
sance so many have admired from a distance, the Renaissance the textbooks 
strew with nice words like "individualism/' "free spirits," "gusto," was in 
fact one of the most violent free-for-alls of Western history, one with a great 
deal of infighting, and no referee. 


The most important and all-inclusive of Renaissance ideals is that of virtu. 
It is an ideal that descends clearly in many ways from the medieval knightly 
ideal, and in one of its phases, that represented by the familiar Courtier of 


A History 0} Western Morals 

Castiglione, employs the same term the troubadours used to designate the 
ideal of courtly love. It is an ideal for the first aristocracy, the men of affairs, 
though certainly many a member of the second aristocracy was inspired to 
follow it. Cellini, for instance, was sure that he had achieved virtu as, 
indeed, he had. 

Etymology can help here, and clear up the difficulty that springs from the 
fact that virtu is not virtue. Both words come from the same Latin root, 
which means simply "male strength," and has survived in the English "virile/' 
In modern English and French, however, Christianity has scored at least a 
verbal triumph and has succeeded in divesting the word "virtue" of its mas- 
culinity, pugnaciousness, and general aura of magic potency, and investing it 
with its current and relatively peaceful ethical content. The Italian virtu, the 
great word of the Renaissance, kept its more primitive associations; but 
even so, when taken over bodily into English in the eighteenth century, it 
came to mean there a passionate connoisseurship of art objects, became 
merely a part of that great Mignon complex, or fallacy, that has so distorted 
our Northern understanding of the Italians. 

Virtu for the man of the Italian Renaissance meant doing supremely well, 
gracefully, and, if possible, with no sign of effort, what his society esteemed 
most worth doing. Now as I have already noted, it is true enough that in the 
Renaissance many of the things scholars and artists do were esteemed as 
permitting the exhibition of virtii. (No lonely virtu, of course; it has to be 
exhibited to others.) Castiglione would have his courtier 

more than passably accomplished in letters, at least in those studies that are called 
the humanities, and conversant not only with the Latin language but with the 
Greek, for the sake of the many different things that have been admirably written 
therein. Let him be well versed in the poets, and not less in the orators and his- 
torians, and also proficient in writing verse and prose, especially in this vulgar 
tongue of ours; for besides the enjoyment he will find in it, he will by this means 
never lack agreeable entertainment with ladies, who are usually fond of such 
things. . . , 5 

But Castiglione's man of virttt has much more firmly the markings of the 
aristocrat of the great Western tradition of bodily gifts, of the warrior spirit 
and training, tamed vastly, softened perhaps, and certainly civilized, in com- 
parison with the simple sword wielders of old, but still a full hormonal male. 
Again, an excerpt or two will do: 

5 Castiglione, Count Baldassare, The Book of the Courtier (1528), trans, by Leonard 
Eckstein Opdycke, New York, Scribner, 1903, p. 59. 


The Renaissance 

... I am of opinion that the principal and true profession of the Courtier ought 
to be that of arms; which I would have him follow actively above all else, and 
be known among others as bold and strong, and loyal to whomever he serves. And 
he will win a reputation for these good qualities by exercising them at all times 
and in all places, since one may never fail in this without severest censure. And 
just as among women, their f air fame once sullied never recovers its first lustre, 
so the reputation of a gentleman who bears arms, if once it be in the least 
tarnished with cowardice or other disgrace, remains forever infamous before the 
world and full of ignominy. Therefore the more our Courtier excels in this art, the 
more he will be worthy of praise. . . . 

I wish, then that this Courtier of ours should be nobly born and of gentle race; 
because it is far less unseemly for one of ignoble birth to fail in worthy deeds, 
than for one of noble birth, who, if he strays from the path of his predecessors, 
stains his family name, and not only fails to achieve but loses what has been 
achieved already; for noble birth is like a bright lamp that manifests and makes 
visible good and evil deeds, and kindles and stimulates to virtue both by fear of 
shame and by hope of praise. And since this splendour of nobility does not 
illumine the deeds of the humbly born, they lack that stimulus and fear of 
shame, nor do they feel any obligation to advance beyond what then* predecessors 
have done; while to the nobly born it seems a reproach not to reach at least the 
goal set them by their ancestors. And thus it nearly always happens that both in 
the profession of arms and in other worthy pursuits the most famous men have 
been of noble birth, because nature has implanted in everything that hidden seed 
which gives a certain force and quality of its own essence to all things that are 
derived from it, and makes them like itself: as we see not only in the breeds of 
horses and of other animals, but also in trees, the shoots of which nearly always 
resemble the trunk; and if they sometimes degenerate, it arises from poor cultiva- 
tion. And so it is with men who if rightly trained are nearly always like those 
from whom they spring, and often better; but if there be no one to give them 
proper care, they become like savages and never reach perfection. 6 

The Courtier is, like so much else in the Renaissance, deliberately Greek. 
Sir Harold Nicolson has put this well : 

Castiglione had at the back of his mind the twelve great virtues which Aristotle 
defined as essential to the perfect man. He assumes above all that the good 
courtier will possess the two virtues of Magnanimity and u^aXoTrpeVeia, ^hich is 
generally translated 'magnificence/ but which also signifies 'grandeur controlled 
by taste.' It is greatness of mind and nobility of soul that differentiate good man- 
ners from such things as deportment and etiquette, which can be taught fc by any 
dancing master.' Moreover, the function of courtier might be humiliating, were 
it not for the end, or telos, that it serves. A courtier should train himself to be- 
come a man of such character, ability and standing as to be able to direct his 

6 Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, pp. 25, 22. 


A History of Western Morals 

prince along the paths of liberality and justice and to keep him always within 'la 
austera strada della virtu. 5 Were it not for such high ideals and purposes the posi- 
tion of a courtier might appear parasitic. 7 

Castiglione, who seems to have been a nice man and who, after all, was 
writing a book of etiquette, even though it has high philosophical touches, 
does not really underline the extent to which virtu is a masculine thing. But 
note a significant detail from the history of costume. The fifteenth and early 
sixteenth centuries are, as far as I know, the only period in the history of the 
West when the male wore very tight lower garments ("hose"), with a con- 
spicuous codpiece, which was often ornamented. This fact "proves" nothing 
but symbolizes a great deal. The man of the Renaissance admired masculin- 
ity, one may hazard, but was a bit uncertain as to whether he had it; hence, 
he must display what he undoubtedly had. Remember, the old feudal fact of 
maleness, untouched by art and letters, was still fresh in men's minds. In- 
deed, one may hazard a broader and even riskier generalization: in the 
Western tradition, the pursuits of the artist, writer, scholar, priest have never 
been accepted generally as fully masculine pursuits. The codpiece accom- 
panied naturally enough the highest masculine flight of the artist and thinker. 

A special kind of virtu came from the successful application of this 
heightened ethics of competition to politics. We think, once we have got 
over our first normal Western identification of Renaissance with Art an 
identification not necessarily made by the men of the Renaissance themselves 
of the Borgias, of Machiavelli, of the condottiere, of the Renaissance 
popes, as typical figures of their age. And so they are. High politics, it need 
hardly be said, is not a pursuit in which the participants have generally lived 
up to the best ethical concepts of the Western tradition. But the politics of 
Renaissance Italy survives in our memory, along with that of the Roman 
Empire at its worst, as peculiarly immoral, as combining the refinements of 
a high culture with the ferociously unprincipled struggle for power of Mero- 
vingian France. The world of Machiavelli does, however, seem to most of us 
somehow worse than that of Gregory of Tours though the fact remains that 
in the end both justify acts that are certainly contrary to the rules of Christian 
morality. Perhaps we are all victims of our feeling for history: Cesare Borgia 
should have known better; Clovis the barbarian could not have known better. 

Nor was the politics of virtu by any means limited to Italy. Burckhardt, 
who did not like being the safe Swiss bourgeois he was, admired the virtu- 
filled actors of European politics, as he admired most of what went on in the 
7 Good Behaviour, Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1956, p. 152. 


The Renaissance 

sixteenth century. They made the state a work of art, he felt And as artists 
they could hardly expect to be what the bourgeois call moral. Certainly the 
personalities stand out. The struggle for power between Charles V and 
Francis I, with Henry VIII strutting the sidelines, with all Italy boiling with 
men of virtu, with Protestantism in the North in its first heat of passion all 
this, heightened by the beauties of art and letters, makes a picture most at- 
tractive from a safe distance. But the potlatch touch is there, in fact, rather 
more murderous in its ultimate extension than it seems to have been among 
the aborigines of the Pacific Northwest, and absolutely, if not relatively, 
even more expensive. No Kwakiutl ever bested those two Renaissance tribes- 
men Francis I and Henry VIII at their meeting on the Cloth of Gold near 
Calais. Indeed, for those who like to line up the perfect transitional moment 
from medieval to modern Dante, first modern and last medieval writer, 
Bouvines, last medieval and first modern battle, and so on the Held of the 
doth of Gold (1520) makes an excellent, if rather late, moment. The Field 
was a medieval tourney, the armored knights tilting away as of old; but it 
was also an international conference "at the summit," and it was conducted 
with some awareness of what we call "public opinion.*' 

One final carping word about the Renaissance ideal. These aristocrats 
were reasonably secure in their superiority, clear that they were above the 
common herd. They did not, it is true, seem to worry much about their 
inferiors. And yet, they seem, from our remove in time, to be not quite as 
assured as the Greek gentlemen were; they seem to be consciously different 
from the vulgar, on the edge, at least, of worrying about their superiority. 
Castiglione can be read as being somewhat on the defensive. The reader may 
remember the line from Homer cited in Chapter m, which I have crudely 
translated "always to be best in masculine excellences and come out on top 
of others" (see p. 65). Here is the Renaissance George Chapman's version: 
"that I should always beare me well, and my deserts enlarge beyond the 
vulgar. . . ." s One should not hang too much on a single instance. But 
Homer says not a word that can be remotely associated with the concept of 
"vulgar." The man of virtu knew the vulgar were there, not altogether un- 

I have no doubt painted too black a picture of the two great Renaissance 
ideals of the humanist and the man of virtu, or, at any rate, of men trying to 
live up to these ideals. The humanist was not always vain and quarrelsome 

8 Homer 1 s Iliad, trans, by George Chapman, London, Routledge, 1886, Book VI, line 
218 in the translation. 


A History of Western Morals 

with the peculiar defensive vanity and purely verbal violence of the scholar; 
and in the ideal he should not have been vain and quarrelsome. The Floren- 
tine Platonists were apparently gentle souls, no more than agreeably proud 
of their great learning. Ficino, in an age when the scholar might in an eco- 
nomic sense exploit his patrons and often did, remained as poor and devoted 
to his tasks as any medieval monk. The many Christian humanists who be- 
fore and after the hotly combative Luther and the coldly assured Calvin 
sought to bring the new learning to purify but not disrupt the old church 
were often as good Christians as it is permitted men to be, modest, temper- 
ate, kindly, firm, unposturing. Guillaume Farel, John Colet, St. Thomas 
More, or, among those who left the church, Zwingli and Melanchthon, must 
be put as a balance against the more violent and prideful. Virtu itself need 
not, and did not, always take the course it took with Cellini, or Cesare 
Borgia, or the other Renaissance earth stormers. Lorenzo de' Medici was 
worthy of his circle. Castiglione's cortegiano was no mere exemplar of the 
will to shine, but a cultivated, disciplined, considerate gentleman, trained to 
reconcile in conduct and in ideal the beautiful and the good. 

"Reconcile" is not the word the Renaissance man would use here. The 
ideal has the attractiveness most of us find in the old Greek identification of 
the beautiful with the good to which one might as well add the true, even 
the natural. These great and good words, no matter how they may annoy the 
naive semanticist, mean much, and very specifically. The beautiful means 
inevitably to us Westerners much that the puritanical strain in our Christian- 
ity cannot quite accept as good: guiltless sensuous pleasures of all sorts, from 
pleasure in human nakedness to pleasures in sounds that lull instead of 
Inspire. The true must seem to many of us not quite the unavoidable and not 
Very pleasant thing the realist or Nature herself sometimes thrusts under 
our noses. Somewhere, outside the cave Plato himself did not quite escape 
from, beauty must be truth, truth beauty, and both good and natural. Why 
not in Medicean Florence? 


Why not indeed? For one thing, because a Florentine monk, Girolamo 
Savonarola, who does not figure in the Mignon complex, did not feel that the 
beautiful is the good. Savonarola's brief bonfire of books and paintings seems 
out of place in the Renaissance, and so it is, for the Renaissance is not a 
"period," but, rather, the lives and achievements of a small group of artists, 


The Renaissance 

scholars, men of virtu. Unlike Puritanism, the Renaissance never did touch 
the many, even in Italy. No doubt the Florentine masses were aware of the 
reputation of their city, and proud of it; so were the Parisians of the nine- 
teenth century aware that theirs was la ville lumiere. But this is the vicarious 
satisfaction of fct pooled self-esteem." Neither morally nor aesthetically were 
the masses of either city lifted to the level of those they admired. 

Savonarola's brief career as a Puritanical fanatic at least as extreme as 
the Calvinists is a reminder of several things that need saying here. First, 
although no Puritanism imprinted itself as a way of life among the many in 
the so-called "Latin" nations as did Calvinism in the North, the notion that 
Puritanism plays no part in the moral history of these lands is not true. The 
Puritan temper is in its characteristic forms passionate indeed, dedicated to 
ends utterly opposed to the ideal of the beautiful-and-good. excitable, per- 
fectly congruous with our stereotypes about the Latin temperament. Histor- 
ically, Puritanism was bora in the Mediterranean, with Moses and with 
Plato, and it has never ceased to crop up there. Most of the great renewals 
of Latin monasticism were inspired by the Puritan desire to subdue the old 
and too-comfortable Adam in us all. From Arnold of Brescia through Francis 
of Assisi to Savonarola and Socinus, Italy has produced in all their varieties 
these passionate men of single purpose, who do not remind one at all of the 
brilliant polymaths and sunny artists of the Renaissance the Leonardos, the 
Ficinos, the Raphaels . . . and the Sodomas. Spain, of course, does even 
better with the austere, tortured, proudly militant or raptly mystical Christian 
whom we English-speaking people cannot think of as Puritans, largely, no 
doubt, because our own Puritan ancestors thought of Spaniards as their an- 
titheses as well as their enemies. The list is long, culminating in Loyola, St. 
John of the Cross, and that Greek who must have been a Spaniard, though he 
goes by the name of El Greco. 

Savonarola may remind us not only of the fact that even in the South 
there are, especially for the historian of morals, many great figures in the 
chronological "period" Renaissance that do not fit with the th rear Renais- 
sance, but also of the fact that Savonarola and many of these other dark 
rebels against even the beautiful-and-good in its resurrected form could 
move the people, the many, in a way the Politians, the Ficinos, the Erasmuses, 
the painters and sculptors could not and indeed did not want to move them. 
They remind us who are Protestants that the passions, the great mass 
movements, the killings and the torturings, the series of revolutions we call the 
Reformation are no Northern thing, but cover all the West. Spain again is a 


A History of Western Morals 

good symbol. The siglo de oro was not for most Spaniards a time of great 
artists and writers; it was a time of searing religious conflicts between the 
conservatives and the reformers, conflicts quite as bitter as if Lutherans and 
Calvinists had actually won a foothold in Spain, conflicts that bred among 
the masses that extraordinary tension that is the mark of social revolution, 
successful or abortive. This is what happened to the body of St. John of the 

Hardly had his breath ceased than, though it was an hour past midnight, cold and 
raining hard, crowds assembled in the street and poured into the convent. Press- 
ing into the room where he lay, they knelt to kiss his feet and hands. They cut 
off pieces from his clothes and bandages and even pulled out the swabs that had 
been placed on his sores. Others took snippings from his hah* and tore oft his 
nails, and would have cut pieces from his flesh had it not been forbidden. At his 
funeral these scenes were repeated. Forcing their way past the friars who guarded 
his body, the mob tore off his habit and even took parts of his ulcered flesh. 9 

Something like this can happen anywhere, anytime, as long as the Chris- 
tian eschatology has meaning for the many; if sin, damnation, and salvation 
are real to them, men are going to grasp excitedly for available salvation, as 
they would for available gold. 10 But there was too much of this kind of reli- 
gious frenzy, too many signs of deep popular disturbance and unrest, in the 
centuries that culminate with the sixteenth for the historian of morals to 
dismiss all this as simply another constant of human conduct. We come to 
the most important and difficult part of our subject, the estimate of the level 
of moral life of an age. It looks as if for such a purpose the chronological 
period really appropriate is the last few centuries of the Middle Ages 
Huizinga's "autumn" of the Middle Ages, roughly the fourteenth and fifteenth 
centuries and the sixteenth century itself, the golden age of the Renaissance. 
These look like disturbed, unhappy, difficult centuries, especially for the 
many, a period of moral lapse, a kind of trough in the diagrammatic account 
of human conduct in the West. 

It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to show an actual decline in the kind 
of conduct easiest described as the domain of conventional private morality. 
Was there over all the West a relatively greater number of men and women 
who commonly lied, raped, murdered, fornicated, committed adultery, stole, 

9 Gerald Brenan, "A Short Life of St. John of the Cross," in The Golden Horizon, ed. 
b> Cyril Connolly, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1953, pp. 475-476. 

10 It began to happen not many years ago over the grave of a priest in greater Boston; 
church and state combined to stifle so un-American a manifestation of the primitive in 


The Renaissance 

got drunk, idled unprofitably, behaved, as our self-conscious generation puts 
it, "neurotically," in 1490 than in 1290? The reader knows already that I 
do not think this question can be answered at all in accordance with the 
highest standards of the historian's profession. National, local, class variation 
in these matters forces itself on our attention ever more vigorously as our 
sources improve in quantity. Nevertheless, I think it worth while to try to 
guess at some answers, which add up to a 6fc yes, there is more private im- 
morality on an average and among the many in these centuries." 

The preachers, the moralists, are vigorous enough. Here is a final lead 
from Savonarola, who writes to his father in 1475: 

In primis: the reason that moved me to enter religion is: first, the great misery 
of the world, the iniquities of men, the rapes, adulteries, larcenies, pride, idola- 
tries, and cruel blasphemies which have brought the world so low that there is 
no longer anyone who does good; hence more than once a day I have sung this 
verse, weeping: Heu fuge crudelas terras, fuge littus avarum! And this is why I 
could not suffer the great malice of the blind peoples of Italy, and the more so 
as I saw all virtues cast down and all vices raised up. This was the greatest suffer- 
ing I could have in this world. 11 

And here is a less exalted moralist, the English Elizabethan translator 
Grub Street is already near Aegremont RatcliSe: 

For who ever saw so many discontented persons: so many yrked with their owne 
degrees: so fewe contented with their owne calling: and such number desirous, 
greedie of change, novelties? Who ever heard tel of so many reformers, 
or rather deformers of estates and Common weales; so many controllers of 
Princes, and their proceedinges: and so fewe imbracing obedience? whiche be- 
ginneth nowe (the more pitie) to be lagged at the carte's taile. And to be short: 
such straunge and souden alteration in all estates? . . . The Merchant, doth he 
not tickle at the title of a Gentleman? Tne Gentleman, doth he not shoot at the 
marke of Nobility? And the Noble man, hath he not his eye fixed uppon the 
glorie and greatnesse of a Prince? What Prince could not be contended to be 
Monarche of the whole world? 12 

Finally, even earlier there are ample signs of the kind of social unrest 
that makes, if not for private immorality, at least for the kind of personal 
difficulties over status, security, discipline v^hich our contemporary alarmists 
seem to find so unprecedented. As early as 1381, John Ball wrote: 

By what right are they whom men call lords greater folk than we? . . . how can 

ii Quoted in Ralph Roeder, The Man of the Renaissance, New York, Viking, 1933, p. 4. 
12 "Dedication to Politique discourses"' quoted in Ruth Kelso, The Doctrine of the 
znghth Gentleman in the Sixteenth Century, University of Illinois, Studies in Language 
and Literature, XIV, No. 1-2, Feb.-May. 1929, p. 32. 


A History of Western Morals 

they say or prove they are better than we, if it be not that they make us gain for 
them by our toil what they spend in their pride. 13 

Now it is true enough, as I have pointed out in my introductory chapter, that 
there is in Western tradition almost a constant of complaint of this sort, 
generation after generation of intellectuals who tell us the men and women 
of their time are wicked, more wicked than usual, and who say so with an 
eloquence that makes my report of what they said seem inadequate. Yet we 
must not conclude that such complaints are of no use to the historian seeking 
to find out how men really did conduct themselves; these moralists must be 
used with care, with due reference to all other sources, and to the full record 
of other kinds of history, but when so used may help us in our attempt at 
retrospective man watching, 

There is, then, hi the writings of these men of late medieval and early 
modern times a surprising degree of unanimity about the moral failings of 
their age. Their tone is quite different from that of what was, after all, a great 
Age of Complaint and even Conflict, the Victorian. The Mills, the Carlyles, 
the Renans, yes, even the Kierkegaards and the Nietzsches, make their chief 
attack on mere stuffiness, "middle-class morality," and insensitiveness to the 
good and the beautiful. The moralists of the eighteenth-century Enlighten- 
ment center their attack on the privileged classes; they clearly for the most 
part believe in the natural goodness of the common man. But the late medi- 
eval and early modern reformers, from Wycliffe and Hus to Luther and 
Calvin, spare no one. They are, of course, preachers by calling. What they 
say is backed up, however, from many sources. It is no doubt unwise to swing 
completely around to the "realist," and insist that Chaucer, Boccaccio, 
Marguerite of Navarre, and the others are simply reporters, social scientists 
desirous of arriving at the typical in human behavior. It would be dangerous 
to call in and take at their word the deliberate shockers, an Aretino, the 
proto-Bohemians, a Villon, the cheerful skeptics, a Rabelais, the concerned 
skeptics, a Montaigne, the inverted idealists, a MachiaveLi. But when taken 
with several grams of salt their evidence is impressive: a troubled, lively, 
fascinating, and immoral age. 

When, therefore, all this is put together, when much social history is 
added in confirmation, one gets the firm impression that the Reformation, 
Protestant and Catholic, was needed, and was indeed a moral reformation. 
Again, no single item is necessarily more than a bit of the fait divers which 
were there before there were newspapers to record them. When we read that 
13 Quoted in Kelso, English Gentleman, p. 31. 


The Renaissance 

Charles the Bold in 1468 witnessed a Judgment of Paris in which the three 
goddesses were appropriately naked, we may regard this as just one more 
example of the way the great misconduct themselves. When we read that 
women danced naked in some of the taverns, we may feel we are simply deal- 
ing with the eternal Folies-Bergere, one of the great constants of history. 14 
But when to many details of the sort one adds the fact that in the history of 
female costume these centuries, starting from the full, modest robes of the 
thirteenth century, witness the gradual development of exposure and empha- 
sis until decolletage, front and back, becomes as complete as possible and is 
accompanied by that helpful egalitarian device we call "falsies" we begin 
to see the light of a process, a describable social change. 15 

Indeed, the historian of morals, who should realize that deeds are often 
closer to other deeds than words to deeds, must pay careful attention to the 
history of human dress. Clothes are one of the chief forms of conspicuous 
consumption, one of the chief signs of great success in any agon. There is 
certainly no universal co-ordination between clothes and sex morality, but 
within one cultural tradition, such as that of the West, female costume is at 
least some indication of how far in a given class strict, male-dominated 
monogamous marriage is an expected and even realized thing. We must re- 
turn eventually in considering our own society to this puzzling problem of 
the relation between the outward recognition even the flaunting of sex 
differences, the display of the female breasts, the male genitalia (as in the 
above-mentioned codpiece, symbol of virtu) , and the morals and the morale 
of a whole class or society. We may modestly rest content here with the 
obvious fact that in the late Middle Ages and in the Renaissance the facts of 
sex were flaunted. 

There are other indications of a high-living age. The arts of luxury, not 
merely dress but furniture, cookery, private and public building, all flourish. 
The ideals of the humanist and, on the surface, the man of virtu, pay respect 
to the "classical" or ** Apollonian" feeling for moderation, self-discipline, 
restraint, respect for the opinions of one's peer group, the old Greek wisdom 
of "nothing in excess." Yet the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were among 
the wildest, most excessive, most exuberant of times. Painting, sculpture, 

14 Friedlander, Roman Life and Manners, Vol. II, p. 93, quoting Falke, Deutsche 
Trachten-und Modeweh, Vol. I, p. 278. Friedlander thus emerges from his own 
"period" for the good purpose of showing that the looseness of imperial Rome was not 

15 On all this see Durant, The Reformation, pp. 766-768, with many useful references to 
secondary literature. 


A History of Western Morals 

architecture were so directly in the classic tradition that we tend to be fooled 
by these works of art, which do look restrained, restrained notably in compari- 
son with the later baroque. But the life behind the paintings and the sculptures 
was unrestrained, rowdy, given to extremes, consciously lived as something 
for the record. These immoralists, had they not been orthodox Latinists, 
might have gone us one better with that horrid prefix "super." The men of 
the Renaissance lived romantically, anticipating and often in real life outdoing 
the romanticism of the Romantics of the nineteenth century. These latter had 
to take out their wild desires, for the most part, in printer's ink. 

And always, right through the Renaissance, there is the familiar violence 
that had so long been man's lot. There was the uncertainty of daily life in the 
face of the never wholly absent threat of famine, plague, the diseases of filth 
and contagion, and, in most of Europe, the cold of winter. There was the 
still, by modem standards, most imperfect public order. Police, beyond a few 
night watchmen in the cities, did not exist. Bands of beggars could be violent 
and dangerous; highwaymen were an accepted risk of travel. The atrocious 
punishments for what are now minor crimes the famous example is the 
English penalty of death for sheep stealing added public executions to the 
violent flavor of all life and clearly did little to diminish crime. It must be 
repeated: however real in the West today, and especially in the United States, 
are the problems set by violence, from juvenile delinquency and adult gang- 
sterism to highway accidents and the fearful threat modern war presents, 
however persistent in "human nature" whatever drives men to these violences 
may seem, the fact remains that the problems of violence in our world are set 
in so different a framework of social and political institutions, of actual 
human expectation and habit, that they are quite different problems. We 
think of much if not all violence as preventable; the men of the Middle Ages 
and the Renaissance did not. The haunting fear our intellectuals have of the 
atom bomb is a different thing from the fear everyone then had of famine, 
plague, and their fellows. 

After such serious matters, it may seem trivial to come to the topic of 
cleanliness, even if there is an English proverb that cleanliness is next to 
godliness, and should, therefore, be a concern of the moralist. But one of the 
many eddies of the modern current of thought that sees the Middle Ages as 
good and later ages as bad has a little eddy on cleanliness. The Middle Ages, 
it is maintained at least as far as towns and cities went were relatively 
clean, and physically a good human environment, if a trifle cramped; people 
took baths. With the growth of the modern way of life, and especially after 


The Renaissance 

capitalism, the cash nexus, the businessman, the mad scramble of the market 
place had taken over and ended medieval togetherness and mutual responsi- 
bilities, towns and cities got crowded, dirty, ugly, and people stopped taking 
bafhs the capitalists would not let them. 16 

I am afraid this thesis cannot be proved. It can hardly apply at all at any 
time to the great majority of Europeans, peasants whose housing, sanitation, 
and the like were probably not very different in 1550 from what they had 
been in 1250 cramped, filthy, unhygienic, and not even lovely. Peasants did 
not bathe. As for the towns, still walled, they had often grown considerably 
by the sixteenth century, and were more crowded, and hence perhaps less 
agreeable to live in. But I do not think that medieval towns were as clean and 
pleasant as the lover of the Middle Ages who is almost always a hater of 
the present makes them out to have been. I do not think that the moral, or 
immoral, equivalent of the cash nexus was quite absent from Western society 
even in the thirteenth century. 

There is not much doubt that the West in the sixteenth, and right through 
the eighteenth century, was what we should consider very dirty and unsani- 
tary indeed. Individuals who prospered could often live as comfortably and 
as cleanly as they wished in their own interiors; housing in the countryside in 
Western Europe did clearly improve considerably in early modern times. 
But urban filth was an Augean stable. The most ardent lover of eighteenth- 
century London and there are many of them nowadays knows well it was 
a stinking place. 17 In the Louvre, and at Versailles, those great palace cities, 
there was a most inadequate provision for what Americans now call "rest 
rooms." The male courtiers, at least, commonly simply retired to a corner 
behind a door; as a result, the odor of urine was a permanent thing in these 
abodes of luxury. It seems farfetched to blame this on the spirit of capitalist 

The historian of morals must be careful to record the moral reputation an 
age has left behind it; that reputation may seem to him not entirely deserved, 
and, in particular, the reputation may rest on the conduct of a class or group 
by no means typical of other parts of the society. But there will always be 

16 Mr. Lewis Mumford will do as an example of this attitude. I do not much caricature 
his position in my brief account. See Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities, New York, 
Harcourt, Brace, 1938, pp. 42-51. 

17 My older readers may remember the late Leslie Howard in Berkeley Square, a play 
in which the sentimental twentieth-century lover of the eighteenth gets transported back 
to his beloved eighteenth-century London and is horrified by its stench, its dirt, its 
harsh class-lines, its violence. 


A History of Western Morals 

some fire behind the smoke, some truth in the cliche. The Renaissance has 
left us the evil moral reputation of Italian life at its height, and the beginnings 
of the firm belief among Northerners, at least, that in Western Europe the 
distinction between North and South is no mere geographical cleavage, but a 
moral cleavage. 

The best-known exhibit of Renaissance immorality is the papal court 
under popes like Alexander VI and Julius II. No sensible person nowadays 
would think of trying to deny the personal immorality of the conduct of 
Alexander Borgia, which is quite down to that of Clovis, nor the worldliness 
and corruption, the shocking struggle for prize, of the papal court in much 
of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. One need not consult Protestant or 
freethinking historians: the great Catholic historian Ludwig Pastor is quite 
frank about it all, indignant as a good man should be, and aware as a historian 
should be that no evil is quite unprecedented. Homo sapiens has been on 
earth enough to give a full indication of his capacities for both good and evil. 18 

A sounding almost anywhere in contemporary writing should convince 
the reader that this Italian Renaissance, for all its glories, was a violent and 
immoral age. Almost any page of Cellini will do for the artist. Here is a 
passage from Boccaccio's Decameron which shows a breakdown of morals 
and morale far worse than what Thucydides tells us about the comparable 
plague at Athens: 

Some thought that moderate living and the avoidance of all superfluity would 
preserve them from the epidemic. They formed small communities, living en- 
tirely separate from everybody else. They shut themselves up in houses where 
there were no sick, eating the finest food and drinking the best wine very tem- 
perately, avoiding all excess, allowing no news or discussion of death and sick- 
ness, and passing the time in music and suchlike pleasures. Others thought just the 
opposite. They thought the sure cure for the plague was to drink and be merry, 
to go about singing and amusing themselves, satisfying every appetite they could, 
laughing and jesting at what happened. They put then- words into practice, spent 
day and night going from tavern to tavern, drinking immoderately, or went into 
other people's houses, doing only those things which pleased them. This they 
could easily do because everyone felt doomed and had abandoned his property, 
so that most houses became common property and any stranger who went in 
made use of them as if he had owned them. And with all this bestial behaviour, 
they avoided the sick as much as possible. 

In this suffering and misery of our city, the authority of human and divine 

is The reader should dip, at least, into one of the fifteenth- or sixteenth-century volumes 
of Ludwig Pastor, History of the Popes, English translation, 40 volumes, St. Louis, 
Herder, 1910-1955. This is sober, conscientious historical writing, in no sense alarmist. 


The Renaissance 

laws almost disappeared, for, like other men, the ministers and the executors of 
the laws were all dead or sick or shut up with their families, so that no duties 
were carried out. Every man was therefore able to do as he pleased. 

Many others adopted a course of life midway between the two just described 
They did not restrict their victuals so much as the former, nor allow themselves 
to be drunken and dissolute like the latter, but satisfied their appetites moderately. 
They did not shut themselves up, but went about, carrying flowers or scented 
herbs or perfumes in their hands, in the belief that it was an excellent thing to 
comfort the brain with such odours: for the whole air was infected with the smell 
of dead bodies, of sick persons and medicines. 

Others again held a still more cruel opinion, which they thought would keep 
them safe. They said that the only medicine against the plague-stricken was to go 
right away from them. Men and women, convinced of this and caring about 
nothing but themselves, abandoned their own city, their own houses, their dwell- 
ings, their relatives, their property, and went abroad or at least to the country 
round Florence, as if God's wrath in punishing men's wickedness with this plague 
would not follow them but strike only those who remained within the walls of the 
city, or as if they thought nobody in the city would remain alive and that its last 
hour had come. 19 

Finally, here are a few entries from the diary of the Florentine Luca 
Landucci. They are, like our newspaper stories of today, accounts of what 
the reader most wants to read, the horror story; they are not sociological 
studies. Still, this is surely a world far more violent, more insecure, more 
"natural" and undisciplined, more immoral., than ours: 

21st June. We heard that the French had gone vuth our troops to encamp before 
Pisa, and the Pisans had fired upon the French and killed several of them. The 
French leader came here, and it was said that the French went in and out of Pisa 
as they chose. Treachery was suspected, and this suspicion was justified. 

At this time the plague appeared in several houses, and many people were suf- 
fering from French boils. 

On this day certain women came out of Pisa clothed only in then- chemises; but 
our troops took them, suspecting that they carried messages, and decided to search 
them. The soldiers were so shameless as to search them to their skins, and they 
found letters to the Pope's son. Think what wars bring about, the innumerable 
cases that happen, and the sin of those who cause it all. 

At this time we heard that there had been a tumult at Perugia, and that the 
Baglioni had been expelled, 100 men having been killed. Also that the Sienese 
were in arms, and that the father-in-law of Petruccio had been killed. 

i Trans, by R. Aldington, New York, Covici, Friede, 1930, pp. 3-4. The reader should 
go to the whole of this introduction to the First Day. 


A History of Western Morals 
llth August. Pistoia rose in arms, on account of internal disputes. 

During these days all the people here were discontented, chiefly because of the 
barzello, which had been very hard upon them, and also because they could see 
that no conquests were made, and there would be large costs to pay. The Pisans 
had sacked Altopascio and taken Libraf atta. 

17th August. We heard that the Pistolese were still fighting amongst themselves, 
and that 150 men had been killed, and houses burnt down; and the church of San 
Domenico was burnt down. The people from all the country round, and from 
the mountains, rushed to the town; and it was said besides that Messer Giovanni 
Bentivogli had sent men on foot and horseback. 

19th August. We heard that the Pisans had taken the bastion, and killed everyone 
in it, and that they were encamped at Rosignano; and our leaders did not send to 
relieve any place, it almost seeming as if they were stunned. We were without 
soldiers, in fact, or to speak more correctly, with but few; their number not 
sufficing to go to the succour of a place when needed, so that we were between 
the devil and the deep sea. It was a very distressing and perilous time, so much 
so that on the 20th August, the day of San Bernardo, the bells of the Palagio 
were not allowed to be rung, on account of the dangers within and without; but 
God has always helped this city. 

30th August. Soldiers were hired and sent to Pistoia and to Livorno and to gar- 
rison the castles. 

1st September. Many people passed through here on then: way to the Jubilee. 

5th September. We heard that the Turks had taken Corfu and Modone, and had 
killed everyone, and razed Modone to the ground. And it was said besides that the 
Turks had defeated the Venetian fleet and captured it; and that 30 thousand 
persons had been killed, on board the vessels and in the cities together. 20 

Something of this laxity, corruption, and violence is visible in other parts 
of Europe than Italy. The fifteenth century, notably, is everywhere one of 
social unrest, endemic violence, of widespread fears and pleasures of the 
senses, an age that seems to deserve Sorokin's label for our own: sensate. 
And in the sixteenth century, the Northern Renaissance itself, if it does not 
equal the achievements of the picturesquely sinful Italians, is not an age, even 
in those homes of virtue, England, the Low Countries, and Germany, of 
chastity and simple moral virtue among the great. Elizabethan England would 
have I almost wrote should have shocked Victorian England. 

20 A Florentine Diary, trans, by Alice De Rosen Jervis, London, Dent, 1927, pp. 170, 
171, 172-173. The "French boils" are almost certainly syphilis, a new disease which 
people of a given state usually named from their favorite enemy. The year is 1500. 


The Renaissance 

But, though as Protestants many of us register firmly Italian immorality 
for these centuries, general opinion in the West has been willing to forgive the 
Renaissance its sins, as it has not been willing to forgive imperial Rome, or 
Byzantium, or much much less sinful, in fact the aristocracies of the 
ancien regime in France and her imitators. Partly, no doubt, we are, in spite 
of ourselves, heirs of the Victorians, who held that, particularly for the 
Renaissance, great Art redeems everything. We feel, and perhaps not without 
justification, that the unprincipled struggles, the exaggeration of pride into 
virtu, the romantic, Faustian effort to bring back to life classic, Apollonian 
Greece and Rome, the tremendousness, the sheer hyperbolic drive of these 
men of the Renaissance, was somehow nonetheless not without a most para- 
doxical aesthetic measure and restraint. (Paul Bunyan, pure and revolting 
hyperbole, is no Renaissance character.) Their saving graces make their 
immoral conduct somehow fruitful, at bottom, moral. Perhaps more soundly,, 
we judge, from the vantage point of time past, these disorderly centuries of 
the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance to have been signs of an age of 
growth, of progress, those of imperial Rome and Byzantium to have been 
signs of decay and death. 

As to the second major aspect of the reputation of the Renaissance, the 
establishment of a division between a moral North and an immoral South, we 
must note that Northern opinion greatly exaggerates for the fifteenth and 
sixteenth centuries the reality and degree of that difference. Nevertheless, the 
division is by no means wholly unreal. Calvinism, whether you think it eco- 
nomically or spiritually determined, took root in the North as it never did in 
the South. The South, as I have insisted above, has had its Puritan rebels, its 
crowds inspired by brief and quite unsunny passions; it has never had a large 
middle class endowed or afflicted with ''middle-class morality." There is that 
much truth in the Mignon complex, even in the forms it takes with a Norman 
Douglas or a Robert Graves. 

Moreover, to balance the laxities and the corrupting rivalries of court life 
and high politics, there was throughout the North an aristocracy and gentry, 
formed in just these centuries from the fourteenth through the sixteenth, 
varying certainly in its ideals and conduct in different lands, but, on the 
whole, as I shall point out in the next chapter, a disciplined, serious-minded, 
conscientious, privileged class, much maligned in our tradition. The English 
landed gentry, the Dutch nobility, the French provincial noblesse, the Prus- 
sian Junkers these were not much like the Italian upper classes of the 
Renaissance. They were, substantially, lions, not foxes, and they as much as 


A History of Western Morals 

the Protestant reform and the rising middle classes gave to the next few cen- 
turies of European life its stamp of high seriousness. 


What we are dealing with in this chapter, however, exceeds the bounds of 
private morality, of a history of morals taken in a narrow sense. What seems 
to be happening in these centuries is a widespread disturbance, a loosening 
of the old steady ways, a social syndrome of the kind that the philosopher of 
history calls by some phrase suggesting death or decay, with or without over- 
tones of coming rebirth. Intellectuals of our own day, feeling that we ourselves 
are on some horrifying descent, have been fascinated with syndromes of this 
sort in the past of civilization. We do not understand them; we are not even 
sure that we can identify them. After all, the West survived this crisis of the 
fifteenth and sixteenth centuries if there was a crisis. Perhaps what hap- 
pened was simple enough: wealth increased markedly over these centuries 
and, however bad the condition of the masses may have been, a very great 
number of people were by 1500 able to do something besides work, eat, sleep, 
and procreate. They could afford luxuries, afford to play, afford to sin; and 
this they proceeded to do, and to worry vocally about it. 

At the very least, this innocent economic interpretation must be accom- 
panied by recognition that for many whose wealth permitted the pleasures of 
the flesh, as well as the pleasures of high competition, of virtu, there was a 
haunting memory of the fact of sin. The tensions, the excitements, the tor- 
tured awareness of the macabre, the excessiveness of the age must have their 
theater of action in the human soul. But we can go much further. Surely new 
and increasing wealth and its consequences have their place in the syndrome, 
but so, too, must a major fact of the history of ideas, and therefore of the 
history of morals: from the fourteenth century on there was slowly formed 
a new cosmology, a new attitude toward man's place in the universe "new," 
as always in human affairs, implying much survival of "old" a new view of 
reality which could not always or readily or forever sit comfortably along with 
the old medieval synthesis in the mind of any one normal man. We shall be 
much concerned with this new view of reality better, new views of reality 
for the rest of this book. Summary of so complex a thing is impossible; we 
may for the moment content ourselves with a good symbol, the title of a 
book by the late V. Gordon Childe, a distinguished Australian anthropologist 


The Renaissance 

and non-Christian: Man Makes Himself. 2 * I feel sure there are no medieval 
books with titles remotely like this. 

With the Reformation and the Renaissance we have at last come to the 
end of the Middle Ages. An older way of looking at historical periods did see 
in both Reformation and Renaissance the modern age born fully formed, 
ready for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. There is no use quarreling 
over so adjustable a matter as a historical period. It is a long way from the 
thirteenth century to the eighteenth century, and in all these years the Middle 
Ages as a way of life was slowly giving way to what we call the modern, or, 
in Toynbee's despairing words for our own contemporary generation, the 
"post-Modern." The historian who focuses on international politics, national 
history, art, letters, technology, will naturally emphasize quite different dra- 
matically notable points of break between medieval and modern, or insist 
there is no such break, but only a long slow transition. For the historian of 
morals, however, the break, though far from sudden, comes rather in the 
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than earlier, and it comes out fully only 
when those two great factors in the modern Western moral outlook, the 
nation-state and the complex of science, technology, and business enterprise 
have come into being, and man has before him the alluring promises of the 
religion of the Enlightenment with its doctrine of progress. 

There remains, in a brief retrospect of the Middle Ages from the point 
of view of the historian of morals, a whole interrelated set of attitudes, theses, 
theories, and just plain notions, which add up to the view that, despite their 
violence, social and economic inequalities, superstitions, poverty, and all the 
rest, the way of life of the Middle Ages was somehow more suited to la con- 
dition humalne than our own, that they were, or at least had, a Golden Age. 
Some form or other of this view, though it is still almost unknown to many 
Americans, has had a great revival in our own day, a revival quite different 
from what seems to us the naive and romantic "Gothic revival" of the early 
nineteenth century. Even in this brief survey we have come across the names 
of several associated with one form or another of this view even if their 
emphasis is often less on exalting the medieval than on damning the modern. 
Weber, Fromm, Tawney, Riesman, Sorokin, Lewis Mumford, James Joseph 
Walsh but the list could be very long. 

Few of these writers would dare, or perhaps care, to assert frankly that 

21 London, Watts, 1941 (1st ed. 1936). This book is a very good brief specimen of an 
attitude, a world view, we shall be much concerned with, under the broad name of En- 
lightenment It is available in a paperback, New American Library, Mentor Books. 


A History of Western Morals 

men were "happier" in 1250 than in 1950. Some, though not the best bal- 
anced of them, have asserted that the morals of 1250 were better than those 
of 1950. The best of them, I think, assert something like this: the "organically 
structured" society of the Middle Ages, with its peasant communities, ac- 
cepted social hierarchies and economic inequalities, or a relatively stable set 
of peck orders, if you insist, tradition-guided nexus of mutual obligations, 
guilds, "just prices," common membership in the great community of Catholic 
Christendom, common acceptance of Christian theism this society enabled 
men to live more serenely, securely, normally than can we in the mad free- 
for-all of modem society, where many, many men are insecure in status, inse- 
cure in means of livelihood, insecure in standards of taste, insecure in man- 
ners, insecure in faith. 

First of all, I must insist that the medieval synthesis so admired lasted 
briefly indeed, hardly more than the thirteenth century. From the Black Death 
of the fourteenth century right on through the Renaissance, the modern age, 
with its cash nexus, its economic growth, its new dynastic states, its overseas 
expansion, is in the making. In these centuries the medieval Christian world 
view is slowly undermined for many intellectuals, though only in the late 
seventeenth century does another world view, which I have called the religion 
of the Enlightenment, fully emerge. Those two world views, the Christian and 
the Enlightened, are different enough, as I hope to show. What is really 
puzzling is how much difference the holding of these different views has made 
in human conduct. I feel very sure that it has made a difference; but I am 
quite as sure that that difference is exaggerated in our tradition. We are if 
I may be permitted a methodological aside quite unable to measure human 
differences as we measure chemical differences. Any culture is at least a 
compound, indeed a mixture; but we cannot measure its components, and 
can only try quite crudely to describe them. 

The world view of any culture is but a component of the total culture; yet 
from the inside, even to a degree from the outside, we think and feel, we 
experience, that culture through its world view in a way you may find sug- 
gested in such terms as "holistic," "Gestalt," "style," "form." So experienced, 
even vicariously, as the historian must always experience, the West of 1250 
is certainly very different from the world of 1750. Yet I do not feel confident 
that the questions suggested by this contrast of medieval and modern can be 
answered at all out of our analytical and empirical knowledge. Here I wish 
to do no more than point out that not the least of the difficulties in our way 
is a grave and obvious contrast between the real and the ideal in medieval 


The Renaissance 

life itself, a contrast that can be at least partially established empirically. // 
medieval life were what it seems in analysis of its "values," u social structure," 
and "world view" and so on, one might grant that men were then secure, 
serene, balanced, "human," in a way they are not now. But we know the 
violence, the uncertainties, the breakdowns of nice theories of mutual obliga- 
tion, the peasant wars, the cruelties, the fanaticism, the ignorance and super- 
stition I refer the reader once more to Zoe Oldenbourg's admirable The 
World Is Not Enough and the rest of the long tale of suffering of life then 
as it was really lived. I am not sure that a degree of unanimity it was only a 
degree, for heresies were endemic on matters of religion was quite a balance 
for all these uncertainties. 

We are at the dead end that seems always to come when one tries to test 
broad theories of moral development in the West, a dead end blocked more 
firmly by the fact that such theories, divorced from transcendental a priori 
standards to measure development, progress, or retrogression, tend in our 
time to drift into the impossible attempt to measure whether men were 
"happier," "more comfortable," "better off" in the past than now. The at- 
tempt is impossible if it is made with purely naturalistic standards, if the 
process of moral development is judged as though the process itself auto- 
matically gives us standards with which to judge its results. If you judge the 
course of history by standards ultimately beyond history, as the full Christian 
must, you may then at least say, not that medieval men were happier than we 
are, but that they were better than we are, for they knew, they believed, what 
millions of us cannot bring ourselves to know and believe, that there is some- 
thing beyond history. Within history, men seem always essentially the same 
in their differences, and Talleyrand quite irrefutable: Plus ga change, plus 
c'est la meme chose. 22 

22 "The more it changes, the more it's the same thing." The attribution to Talleyrand is 
uncertain, but appropriate. 


The Seventeenth Century 

IF THE LATER MIDDLE AGES may be regarded as the seedbed of modern 
Western culture, the sixteenth century as the bare beginnings of sprouting, 
then in the seventeenth century, one may say, the plant begins to show above 
ground. The metaphor is imperfect, for in the long slow process of change in 
human culture so little disappears entirely; the Middle Ages are still alive in 
our midst and not merely in some rural pocket in Europe. The Hearst 
property at San Simeon was certainly not the mere "ranch" it was called, nor 
even a modern rich man's "estate" it was a barony. Baron Hearst himself 
a human palimpsest was a medieval lord, a man of virtii, a freebooter, a late 
nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American entrepreneurial survival of 
the Gilded Age. The personality is indeed a persistent Western, if not human, 
one; the total cultural pattern, I repeat, seems to me to involve a social 
process hard to put in words, even in figures of speech. The central point is 
this recapitulation, this reviving, this persistence of a pattern from the past. 
Of course, the persistence is often deliberate, a conscious harking back, in its 
weakest and perhaps final form no more than the intellectual's peevish regrets 
in the style of Edwin Arlington Robinson's Minniver Cheevy. But I find terms 
like "archaism" (Toynbee), "fossil" (Guerard, Toynbee), and the heavily 
metaphysical "pseudo-morphism" of Spengler unsatisfactory, for they all 
imply a conscious f akery, or a mere seeming, an unreality by no means always 
present in this little-understood process of keeping (not just reviving) the past 
in the present. 

Three aspects of modern culture do show themselves clearly in the West 


The Seventeenth Century 

is seventeenth century: the new state, without which our sentiments to- 
the territorial in-group could hardly have taken the form we call "na- 
lism"; the new natural science, without which our modern metaphysical 
nalism might have been as shallowly rooted and as limited to a small 
ectual class as was the Greco-Roman, and without which our modern 
omic and technological development would have been impossible; the 
Puritanism, without which and to hold this one need not accept every- 
5 Weber and his followers have written science, technology, and entre- 
surship could not have combined as they did in our modern world. The 
sr who has persisted this far need hardly be reminded that none of these 
:ts of culture are "new" in any absolute sense, in, for example, the sense 
prettily illustrated by the astronomer's nova, the new star that appears 
e nothing at all had been visible in the blackness. 

> uritanism is so immediately a part of the ^hole Protestant Reformation 
I have dealt with it under Chapter VTII above; but even for Puritanism, 
aoted there, the alliance with capitalist commerce and industry, the new 
sr of the state, all that was to give our modern Western world its quite 
ecedented mastery of material resources, is not at all obviously begun in 
ixteenth century, nor indeed very conspicuously even in the seventeenth, 
hall encounter this Puritanism again, in the English eighteenth and nine- 
h centuries when as "dissent" or "nonconformity'' or "Victorian moral- 
it has really outgrown its medieval beginnings. Here we must consider 
me length the new state and the new science. But we shall conclude with 
>ral ideal most characteristic of the century, one which flourished then at 
sight, that of the noblesse of the old regime in the West. 


;annot in a book of this sort concern ourselves with the details of the 
and varied process by which, from out of the "feudal disintegration" of 
' medieval times, states already by 1500 so firmly "sovereign" and so 
3rn as England, France, and Spain had grown, or been made. The proc- 
surely by no means well understood, is by no means without interest to 
listorian of morals. If, as some think, the central moral problem of the 
twentieth century is how to prevent war among "sovereign" states, it 
it be possible to learn something from the way in which these sovereign 
s came to preserve peace within their own boundaries. Within what by 
) had become France, it had been, only a few generations earlier, legal 


A History of Western Morals 

and moral not contrary to the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" for a 
Burgundian to kill a "Frenchman" in organized warfare. Within the new 
France, it had become murder for a Burgundian to kill a Frenchman, for the 
old duchy had been incorporated in the French state. And only a few genera- 
tions earlier yet, what the historian calls "private warfare," wars between 
mere feudal barons, had been fitting and proper. 

Now much that is central to any understanding of Western political moral- 
ity is wrapped up in the processes that made France out of a feudal congeries. 
Did the Burgundian, or the Breton, or the Gascon feel that he had been 
forced into becoming a French subject? Was the process one of pure violence 
on the part of the French crown? If so, why was it so successful? Or, perhaps 
the most fundamental problem of all, was the process of uniting France or 
England, or Spain, or even those late-comers to national unity Germany and 
Italy a "natural" one, one fairly put as "growth," one that therefore had to 
"come about" in due and often very slow course? Or was it an "artificial" 
one, one best put as "making," one that, therefore, we can say was "planned" 
and put through by human conscious effort, and that can perhaps be copied 
by us and our children on an international, even on a world, scale? 1 

We shall here take the sovereign state of early modern times as already 
formed. The degree of unity under the crown or, in a few instances, mostly 
surviving medieval city-states like those of the Hansa, under the republic 
varied greatly. But everywhere, even in Germany, the new state is to be 
found; and wherever it is to be found, it demands the final earthly allegiance 
of all its inhabitants. There survived everywhere a great deal of the old medi- 
eval particularism, and in terms of culture, and often of pure tourist bait, there 
still survives today much of the variety of old. But this new state was the 
matrix of the modern nation-state, the legal entity within which what we call 
nationalism was to develop, adding to the state as ultimate legal authority 
the claim of the state as ultimate moral authority, indeed, ultimate teleological 

Long before with the great French Revolution of 1789, however, this 
focusing of the moral and emotional loyalties of citizen (or subject) on the 

1 The reader no doubt knows my own answer it was both natural and artificial. But 
the sorting out of the two, and the gradings in between, is a very difficult matter. I have 
tried in a little book, From Many One (Harvard University Press, 1948), to sketch out 
the importance of the problem, and suggest possible lines of approach. There lies in 
the offing, of course, that particular form of the old problem of determinism which has 
reached an acute form in our own day as "historicism": Were both France of today and 
Germany of today "determined" by Charlemagne, or, for that matter, by Adam and 


The Seventeenth Century 

nation-state had become evident, the new state call it as yet no more than 
the dynastic state had set in a new and still-troublesome form an old moral 
problem. This is the problem that confronted Antigone (see above, p. 103), 
the problem of conflict between moral and political law. The statesmen of 
these early modern centuries set up for the new state the claim to be above 
the accepted ethical principles that were supposed to guide the conduct of 
the individual in his private life. There is certainly a link between this modern 
doctrine of "reason of state" and the old Greek doctrine, or better, perhaps, 
traditional assumption that life of and in the polis is the realization of the 
beautiful-and-good, that, in our terms, the state is the supreme moral end of 
life. It is clear, however, from the Antigone, and from Aristotle's Politics, that 
even in antiquity this doctrine by no means banished the difficulty in a con- 
crete case: What course of action is in fact the one consonant with the su- 
preme good which is the state? 

To this last phase of the problem some distinguished leaders of the new 
dynastic state I am simplifying here, but not, I hope, distorting gave what 
was essentially the reply Plato makes Thrasymachus give in the Republic to 
the question What is justice? Reason of state dictates as the right course, the 
moral course, what human reason, working on the stuff of experience, judges 
to be the most likely to succeed. And what is success? Well, for Cardinal 
Richelieu, perhaps the most representative exponent of reason of state, in 
theory in his famous testament, in fact in his whole unpriestly and un-Chris- 
tian life, success would be something like this: first and foremost, the reten- 
tion and improvement by France of its newly acquired position as leader in 
the struggle for prize of Western international politics, its hegemony (what 
the United States now has in the same scramble of world politics) ; this posi- 
tion to be maintained if possible by diplomacy, if necessary by war; the 
means, whether diplomacy or war, to be the most efficient, the most likely to 
succeed, regardless of how many ethical principles are violated, and how 
often; similar "rational" (or pragmatic or instrumental) tests to be applied to 
internal or domestic French policies, always with the aim of making the entity 
France strongest among other states in the struggle for prize, which is so 
much, much more than the struggle for life or survival; this victory to be 
achieved, these tests to be applied, always with a prudent, if possible well- 
disguised, disregard for the principles of morality. Richelieu, in fact, is a better 
representative of reason of state than the better-known Machiavelli, whose 
name springs naturally to one's attention as a representative immoralist of 
high politics. Machiavelli, for all his defiance of Christian morality, did have 


A History of Western Morals 

as a test of success, even for his Prince, a state in which the good life showed 
traces of the old pagan ideals of the beautiful-and-good. Richelieu seems to 
have wanted no more than that France, that haunting, not-quite abstraction, 
the France he ran, the France that was his team, should place first and stay 
first in the Big League. 

What all this meant in terms of human careers is the creation of a rela- 
tively small but well-trained class of civil servants, diplomatists, and domestic 
administrators, really dedicated to the success of the state, the rational, the 
efficient success of the state. They were to prove skillful indeed, professionals, 
not amateurs lite their medieval predecessors. Without them, the economic 
advances of the modern world, even of our whole developed culture, would 
have been entirely impossible, for they built the frame of public order, of 
security for private property, within the state and to a degree even in inter- 
national relations, which were by no means anarchical, but, rather, an organ- 
ized struggle for prize without which nothing else could have been done. 
They were, even when socially mobile, for the most part gentlemen, and they 
had the manners and morals of gentlemen. Even as agents of reason of state 
in international relations, the diplomatists were not quite the villains of our 
current popular conceptions, not Hollywood-conceived diplomatists. Like 
Talleyrand, who is a superior specimen of the breed, they did not believe in 
the unnecessary violation of the principles of morality, and they were fully 
aware that open and avowed immorality even in international relations is not 
wise. They knew that vice always owes its tribute to virtue, and that the 
tribute should be a graceful one. But there can be no doubt that both in do- 
mestic and in international relations this new class was strongly influenced by 
the doctrine of reason of state, and by the feeling for rational efficiency, for 
rational organization, that was so much a part of that doctrine. At the very 
least, if they were not wicked oppressors, they were insensitive managers, firm 
believers that what was good for them was good for France, or Prussia, or 
even England. 2 

Reason of state was, both as ethics and as conduct, profoundly anti- 
Christian, and in the perspective of time seems far the most dangerous menace 
to the Christian view of life that came out of the Renaissance. The Middle 
Ages could hardly have entertained the doctrine. Grant, as in this book I 
have perhaps too freely granted, that the spotted medieval reality was bad, 

2 The doctrine of reason of state as formal political philosophy was never very popular 
in England, but the practice surely was or so we non-English have long believed. 


The Seventeenth Century 

that private and public conduct was often most un-Christian, it remains true 
that medieval man could not have thought that all things are Caesar's. A 
medieval Antigone, supported by her confessor, would have confronted a 
feudal baron ordering her to violate canon law without much sense of being 
heroic, and she would have been well supported by the organized church. In 
fact, the international church was better organized than the international state 
(the imperfect empire of the High Middle Ages) ; in theory, the doctrine of 
the two swords, lay rulers and spiritual rulers, each with his own province, 
left to Christian ethics a very great sphere. A medieval cardinal might have 
had quite as strong a will to power as Richelieu many of them clearly did 
but he could not have possibly exercised that will to power as Richelieu did, 
and have kept the good opinion of the world. It is a measure of the difference 
of the climate of opinion in the two cultures that, though he had his critics, 
Richelieu was accepted in his own day as, if not a good man, at least as one 
not to be greatly blamed. 

One may risk a broad generalization: with the rise of this class of pro- 
fessional servants of the new state, who were not only necessarily in close 
relations with men of '"business," but had in a sense to be themselves men of 
business, the characteristic agon of the West begins its spread into activities 
that the ancients considered banausic, and that the ruling classes of the 
Middle Ages considered low. The reader must recall that I use the word 
"agon" not as a synonym for human competitiveness, let alone for the full 
range of the Darwinian "struggle for life" among human beings, but for the 
ritualized, almost sportive, competition for the great honors of a given society, 
for the satisfaction of the will to shine perhaps even more than the will to 
power, and often with extreme disregard for the will to survive. With the 
possible exception of the late Greco-Roman world, the agon had hitherto 
been limited to the kind of group and the kind of activity suggested by words 
like "aristocrat," "gentleman," "amateur," and the like. Even in the society 
of the Roman Empire, the newly rich Trimalchio is a figure of fun, the de- 
voted soldiers and administrators for the most part Stoic gentlemen full of 
scruples, basically amateurs, and quite incapable of an expressed concept like 
reason of state. 

It is certainly true enough that the old prestige of the warrior-aristocrat 
and the priest-aristocrat continued. Indeed, even in these United States today, 
the opinion polls always show the heirs of Achilles, Odysseus, and Socrates, 
the soldiers, judges, politicians, scientists yes, even the college professors 
ahead of the businessman or banker in the agon. But the businessman and the 


A History of Western Morals 

banker are there, in the midst of the agon, along with a great many others 
who were not there in earlier times. 

Here the question unanswerable, as usual, in this form inevitably 
arises: Did the new economy precede, "cause," the new state and its morality 
of efficiency, or did the new state and the new morality "cause" the new 
rational and dynamic economy? We Americans, children of the Enlighten- 
ment, like the Marxist grandchildren of that great change in our views of the 
universe, tend to put the economic horse solidly before the linked carts of 
morals and politics. Actually, we are dealing here with a process of historical 
action and reaction, of multiple causation, in which no horse-and-cart meta- 
phor helps, nor any metaphors of roots, or watersheds and tributary streams, 
or trigger pulls. Richelieu, Colbert, Cromwell, Heinsius not to mention John 
La W are all part of a long process in which millions of now-forgotten men 
made millions of decisions that made the modern world. You cannot, except 
in a frame of purely metaphysical thought, say if there had been no great 
administrators like the above, then no Watt, no Stephenson, no Rockefeller, 
no Ford. But you can say that in the historical process as we know it, the new 
economy and the material gains it brought in its train were impossible without 
the new state, the new bureaucracy, the new standardization and efficiency in 
administration. If you are still dissatisfied with this formulation, consult your 
sentiments, which should, as always, give some kind of answer to the unan- 
swerable. My own lean toward: In the beginning was the Word. 


But surely did not Francis Bacon, Galileo, and Newton have a part in the 
great transformation of values that has put a Henry Ford not, indeed, in the 
place of an Achilles, but at least in a place of honor not totally unlike his? 
Natural science is certainly one of the major components of our contempo- 
rary view of the universe, and therefore of our morals. But the relations be- 
tween the development of modern natural science and the whole social and 
cultural matrix out of which science grew are most complex and ill-under- 

As systematic knowledge of "events" in the external world and their 
probable interrelations including the possibility of predicting them natural 
science goes back to the ancient Near East. So, too, does the helpmeet or 
auxiliary of science, mathematics. The distinguished historian of science the 
late George Sarton devoted several long volumes and hundreds of articles to 


The Seventeenth Century 

his chosen subject without ever getting very far into modern times. Nor was 
ancient and medieval science there was indeed science in the Middle Ages 
simply "deductive." The present elaborate social and material equipment 
for testing, experimenting, verifying did not exist, but the fundamental con- 
cept of Western science summed up as the imperative to submit "theory" to 
the test of "facts" was as well known to Hippocrates and Archimedes as to 
us. 3 

Yet we do quite rightly assume that "modern" science is different from 
earlier forms of science. First and most obviously, it clearly occupies a more 
important place in our culture, in terms appropriately if only roughly meas- 
urable in man-hours devoted to it. It is, as a corpus of learning, immensely 
greater and more varied. No matter how you decided to measure it, your lines 
of graph would skyrocket from the seventeenth century onward. Second, and 
quite obvious to us today, the work of the "pure" scientist was to prove use- 
ful to the "practical" engineer, technologist, craftsman, entrepreneur, and 
through them to make possible the extraordinary material success of the 
modern West, a success neatly summarized by the fact that at the present apex 
of this process, the ordinary American has in his garage the power-equivalent 
of a princely stable of former times, or of a whole plantation full of slaves. 
Third, less obvious but more important for the historian of morals, modern 
natural science has buttressed, extended, in a sense made possible, a whole 
set of heresies of Christianity, or, if you prefer, an anti-Christian world view* 
for which I have used the no-doubt-inadequate blanket term "Enlighten- 
ment." I now offer the reader a wide assortment of terms: materialism, 
rationalism, "humanism," scientism, naturalism, secularism, evolutionism, 
positivism, ethical culture. Again, with the great name as symbol; no Galileo, 
Newton, Darwin, then no Locke, no Herbert Spencer, no Marx or, at the 
very least, no such great secular religions associated with such names as these 
last, no modern democracy, no widespread belief in "progress," no Commu- 

Although for us, concerned with the history of Western morals, the third 
factor is of major importance, it is worth noting briefly that both the other 
factors have a moral aspect. Science in itself, as an intellectual discipline, 
could hardly have flourished as it did after 1600 had it not been for the long 
tradition of disciplined thinking, and disciplined scholarly patience, that had 
inspired even so unscientific an intellectual achievement as medieval scholas- 

3 On "facts'* I refer the reader back, through my note on p. 4 to L. J. Henderson. 


A History of Western Morals 

ticism. The banausic virtue, or necessity, of sheer hard dull work had well 
before Calvin been an acquisition of the second or intellectual aristocracy of 
learning as, in spite of the need for a degree of "practice" in athletic training, 
it had not been for the first, or warrior-statesman, aristocracy. Catholic 
Christianity, especially in its monastic form, had made work honorable and 
habitual among the learned. This same extension of the banausic virtues had 
to come about before science and technology could begin their modern col- 
laboration. That collaboration is not as old not, at least, in the form we 
know it as is commonly thought. Francis Bacon does foresee it, with the 
scientist leading the way. But for a long time in these early modem centuries 
it is the craftsman, the empirical inventor of instruments, the metallurgist who 
make it possible for the pure scientist to do more and more refined and effec- 
tive work. But for the two to come together at all, the scientist had to be 
conditioned, not merely to the intellectual attitude implied in his Antaeus-like 
return to earth after flights of thinking and imagination, but to the moral 
attitude that the search for facts cannot be identical with the pursuit of the 
beautiful-and-good, cannot be done with the old Greek grace, cannot, indeed, 
be done with Renaissance virtu. 

We do not, I repeat, understand how this came about; but somehow the 
virtues of the workshop became also the virtues of the laboratory and the 
office or bureau. The modern German gift they vulgarly call Sitzftetsch you 
will hardly find it in the Germans of Tacitus, or of the Song of the Nibelungs 
came into honor in the West. We can, however, once more be sure that the 
process was not one of idea-horse pulling matter-cart, or vice versa, but the 
long, slow mutual interaction of millions of human beings variously moti- 
vated, variously environed, a process circular, or spiral, but not neatly uni- 
linear. This is quite as true of the process by which the modern heresies above 
so generously named came into being. Science had a most important part in 
the process, but in no sense was its only begetter but this last, too, is an 
unsatisfactory figure of speech, for in such processes the begetter is also be- 
gotten by what he begets. 

Once it had begun to seep down into the awareness of the educated and 
later of the partly educated classes, which it had done in Western and Central 
Europe and the United States by the last of the eighteenth century, science- 
atfw-technology had its major effect in reducing immeasurably the areas 
within which a man might assume a will at least remotely like his own to be 
operating. Medieval Christianity, as we have noted, still left an immense field 
for a God yes, let us use, though not in scorn, the word "anthropomorphic" 


The Seventeenth Century 

who even when He did not "interfere" with Nature, still guided and con- 
trolled Nature and, above all, gave purpose to natural processes. Science and 
many scientists themselves were not long in coming to the point Laplace at 
the end of the eighteenth century had arrived at when he could say of God, 
"I have no need for that hypothesis." 

We need not here consider how legitimate, wise, or valuable was this leap 
from the specific study of scientific problems to a religion, or at least a 
cosmology, which we commonly call "materialist" or "mechanical.'" The fact 
is that men made the leap, and that they were encouraged to make the leap 
by the extent to which science already had succeeded in accounting for much 
in nature that had hitherto defied "rational" accounting. Thunder and light- 
ning, that old favorite, will do as an example. Admittedly, even the illiterate 
Christian probably did not see his God in the storm in the role of Jove or 
Thor actually wielding bolts of thunder, but neither could he account for the 
phenomenon, save by common sense, which never really accounts for any- 
thing, never satisfies our need for a metaphysics; he could not, as a matter of 
fact, account in this way for wood floating in water, and iron sinking. Histo- 
rians of science are quite justified in pointing out that scientists themselves, 
qua scientists, by no means "produced" the world view of the new Enlighten- 
ment, and certainly not the doctrine of the natural goodness of man. But the 
upshot of the popularization of science among the upper and middle classes 
was an invitation to a world view that would dispense with, or at least greatly 
curb and confine, the activities here on earth of an immanent godhead. 

A concrete instance may help the modern reader. Henry VIE of England 
had his marriage with Catherine of Aragon annulled (it was not a divorce) 
no doubt in part for reasons of state. The arriviste house of Tudor needed a 
male heir, and though poor Catherine had had numerous miscarriages and 
had borne short-lived infants, only Princess Mary survived. It is easy for us to 
say that Henry acted out of selfish and hard-boiled motives. But he said he 
believed his marriage with Catherine had been contrary to canon law (she was 
his brother Arthur's widow) and that God was punishing him for this sin by 
denying him a male heir. Why should he not believe this sincerely, since he 
found it convenient to so believe? Henry knew much less about the physi- 
ology of human reproduction than does the ordinary schoolboy today; in fact, 
from the point of view of modern science, he knew nothing. Even today, the 
fundamentalist Christian can believe that God directly guides the spermatozoa 
on their heroic way to the ovum and can and does sidetrack them if He likes. 
But most of us, Christian and non-Christian, would turn our minds first, in a 


A History of Western Morals 

specific case such as this, to anatomy, physiology, and the mathematics of 
probability. 4 

Earthquakes, terrifying indeed, and occurring at no regular intervals and 
with no obvious "natural" causes, are an even better example of the gradual 
encroachment of natural causation upon divine intervention. They were until 
the eighteenth century almost universally regarded as acts of God in a literal 
sense hard for most of us, even if we are honest Christians, to recapture by 
no means acts of God in the sense covered by that phrase in our insurance 
policies. The disastrous Lisbon earthquake of 1755 is nearly at the dividing 
line for the educated classes. The general public still interpreted the catastro- 
phe as a warning and an intervention of divine power; the philosophes, though 
they believed the disaster had natural causes, nonetheless launched themselves 
from it in vigorous moralizing, as did Voltaire in his Candide; the scientists, 
or natural philosophers, as they were still known, though very much in the 
dark, went to work gropingly on what became the science of seismology. 5 The 
scientists, let it be repeated, have won, for the great majority of Westerners, 
even though they are Christians, cannot see directly, concretely, as the 
metaphor requires, the hand of God in specific chains of "natural causation." 6 

But was not common sense enough, and had not common sense already in 
the Middle Ages pretty well banished primitive animistic notions, and even 
expectancy of the kind of miracle Christian tradition enshrined? To a degree, 
this is no doubt so. But just what did go on in the medieval mind when it 
faced the traditional water test for a person accused of witchcraft, whereby 

4 For the facts of Henry's belief see C. W. Ferguson, Naked to Mine Enemies: The Life 
of Cardinal Wolsey, Boston, Little Brown, 1958, pp. 331-332. The familiar story of how 
Charles n roared with laughter when he heard that the scientists of his Royal Society 
were trying to weigh air is another case in point. 

5 "In 1750 a writer on the subject [of earthquakes] in the Philosophic Transactions of 
the Royal Society of London apologized to 'those who are apt to be offended at any 
attempts to give a rational account of earthquakes'." K. E. Bullen, *The Interior of the 
Earth,** in The Planet Earth, a Scientific American Book, New York, Simon & Schu- 
ster, 1957, p. 19. For the fascinating intellectual and moral history of the aftermath of 
the Lisbon earthquake see T. D. Kendrick, The Lisbon Earthquake, London, Methuen, 

6 1 had written the above when I saw an arresting newspaper headline: GOD'S ROLE IN 
THE RECESSION. Further reading, however, as is not infrequently true of headlines, actu- 
ally confirmed what I had written and showed that my first impression, that here was 
a good old-fashioned fundamentalist, was wrong. Someone had written the evangelist 
Billy Graham asking why God allowed the unemployment crisis of 1957-58 to be thrust 
on the people, and Mr. Graham began his reply: "Certain things that come upon nations 
are not necessarily ordained of God, but are the result of the law of cause and effect. 
God doesn't as a rule go against the laws of the universe." It is quite possible in our 
world that the headline writer or the questioner or both were Enlightened, attempting 
to needle Mr. Graham. San Francisco Chronicle, April 19, 1958, p. 12. 


The Seventeenth Century 

the accused was thrown into deep water, considered innocent if the water 
swallowed him and guilty if he succeeded in keeping above water, presumably 
on the grounds that the innocent water rejected an evil thing? Clearly there 
is a normal expectancy here, not wholly irrational by any means; but equally 
clearly there is a view of the properties of water hard for the most convinced 
Christian today to entertain. I think it clear that common sense even 
Western common sense, which is perhaps to a degree inclined toward what 
becomes natural science is, unbuttressed by that science, unable to question 
seriously the full Christian cosmology. Common sense alone would never 
have the courage, or the foolhardiness, to question the possibility of the 
miraculous. Even at the height of the Middle Ages, common sense could and 
did question the probability of the miraculous in the daily round of life, but 
not the possibility of the miraculous. To conclude that miracles in the Chris- 
tian sense of the word are impossible took a bolder, newer, less experienced, 
more ruthless mental discipline than common sense, or even "pure'' phil- 
osophical rationalism, could provide. This natural science did provide. 

Natural science also helped fill out, extend, and implement in many ways 
that form of rationalism that is best called "'efficiency" and that I have already 
called attention to as one of the goals of the new state. Indeed, natural science 
is the most efficient tool man thinking has yet developed to help him realize 
certain definite aims or goals; sufficient here to mention our modern conquests 
of wealth and power. In itself, and in spite of the deep belief of the heirs of 
the philosophes that it does provide such, science does not provide what the 
moralist as well as the theologian has to call ends, goals, purpose. The growth 
of natural science in the modern West is, as we have noted already, and shall 
have to pay much more attention to in the next chapter, intimately connected 
historically with the rise of full cosmological rationalism. But in itself science 
merely helps us do what we want to do, blow up Hiroshima or reconstruct it. 
The help is the help of a giant, and no doubt the knowledge that the giant is 
there has deeply and subtly affected our feeling for what is desirable, if only 
by so enlarging our feeling for what is possible. Science probably does add to 
our Western hubris; but the hubris was there, very strong, long, long ago. 
More important I shall return to this point science normally supplies no 
such restraint on, discipline of, that hubris as that which orthodox Chris- 
tianity supplies. 

Finally, natural science played a great part in the growth of the modern 
doctrine of Progress (the capital letter is necessary). At the very end of the 
seventeenth century, in the great debates over whether the moderns could 


A History of Western Morals 

ever equal the ancients, the concrete evidence of scientific progress was useful 
to the proponents of modernity. Dean Swift's attack on the scientists in the 
Academy of Laputa, though by no means the last attack on scientists, was 
perhaps the last brilliant attack in which they were accused of living in a 
Qoud-Cuckoo-Land of utterly impractical projects, made to seem in their 
way quite as unworldly or foolish as the Renaissance humanists had made the 
Schoolmen seem, debating how many angels could sit on the point of a 
needle. 7 By the end of the eighteenth century, French scientists were being 
formally organized to help the revolutionary government in that most prac- 
tical of human activities, warfare. Men in hot-air balloons, after small animals 
had previously been sent up, had begun the conquest of the air. The fact of 
technological progress, and its relation to the work of the pure scientists, had 
begun to be evident to the general public. The men who planned and made the 
great French encyclopedia in the mid-eighteenth century were well aware of 
this conquest of the scientists and technologists; soon, with St. Simon, 
Fourier, Robert Owen, men were to assert the modern conception that there 
could be a social science modeled on natural science, and that, just as natural 
science bore fruit in technological "progress," so social science would inevi- 
tably bear fruit in moral progress or, what their thinkers regarded as identical 
in meaning, social, economic, and political progress. 

Yet the seventeenth century was by no means simply the first of the modern 
centuries, the century of the triumphant new secular state, of the beginnings 
of organized science, of increasing capitalistic production, of the final swing 
of power and of cultural leadership, too from the Mediterranean to the 
Atlantic. It was also the century that saw the culmination in practice and in 
ideal of a way of life that was destined to die out in our time as completely 
as any such way of life can in our history-ridden Western world. Though what 
is suggested by words like "aristocracy," "noblesse," "gentleman," "Ritter- 
lich" "hidalgo" still carry some weight of associations, favorable or unfavor- 
able in fact, as always for most of us normal human beings, mixed and 
ambivalent associations the style of twentieth-century culture has no place 
for the reality behind the words. Even where, as with the "new conservatives" 
in the United States, there is an attempt to uphold the linking of privilege 


T Howard Mumford Jones, in his recent defense of research in the humanities, points 
out with satisfying irony that Swift was accusing the scientists of exactly the kind of 
silly pedantry it is now fashionable to hold against the humanist scholar. 


The Seventeenth Century 

and duty, the full overtones of noblesse oblige, the dignity, good taste, re- 
straint, pi etas (capacity for feeling reverence), and distrust of innovation 
and bright innovators that characterizes the ideal of the gentleman of the 
ancien regime, there is rejection of \vhat was, after all, a fundamental of this 
actual European aristocracy inherited title, privileges, wealth, protected as 
far as seems possible in the West by caste restrictions on marriage with out- 
siders, or mesalliances. Our new conservatives want an open aristocracy of 
merit an aim, the historian of the West is bound to insist seems as Utopian 
as when Plato first announced it in the Republic. As for the remaining nobles 
in the flesh, two centuries have been very hard on them, even in Britain. A 
duke, like a queen, does not even look quite right in modern dress. 

The aristocracy of the European ancien regime was in fact the last natural 
aristocracy in the West. The "nature's nobleman" of the sentimental eight- 
eenth century, the "aristocracy of talent" of hopeful intellectuals, above all, 
no doubt, the horrid "superiors" emerging from the cauldron of modern 
racist, elitist, and even crankier thinking and feeling all seem unreal, syn- 
thetic, unnatural. Our notions of excellence I use the word deliberately 
instead of another with more suggestions of social hierarchy have been 
splintered, atomized, specialized, though by no means destroyed or even, in 
a sense, lessened, in our world of egalitarian ideals and prize-seeking realities. 
In our world a cat cannot only look at a king if he can find one but, if he 
is a prize-winning, pedigreed, best-of-show champion, is himself a kind of 
king. The European aristocracy of old was founded on a conception of gen- 
eral excellence, of hierarchical superiority, not merely the old Greek effort- 
less and amateur superiority of the beautiful-and-good (though that was an 
important part of the aristocratic ideal), but on a conception of an order 
actually cosmological, not merely psychological or sociological, on a belief 
that the aristocrat was a part of God's and nature's plan for the universe. It is 
almost impossible for a modern American to understand the sentiment that 
made of this aristocracy a reality. I can hardly do better than revert to a 
concrete instance that brought the reality to me sharply in the midst of my 
early researches in the history of the French Revolution. A servant was 
brought before the revolutionary authorities for smuggling in roast chicken to 
a nobleman imprisoned during the Terror as a suspected '"counter-revolu- 
tionary." The unrepentant servant explained his act simply: "But M. le 
Marquis was born to eat chicken." 8 

8 Crane Brinton, The Jacobins, New York. Macmillan, 1930, p. 269n. I think there is a 
symbolic truth, and not mere irony, in the fact that in our United States chicken is no 
longer in any sense a luxury food. 


A History of Western Morals 

It must not be assumed that either in theory or in practice this aristocracy 
was an absolutely closed caste. What I have said above does not so much need 
qualification as completion. Outsiders could enter the aristocracy, but ac- 
cording to the theorists, only for some outstanding merit, such as great service 
to the country; and even those formally ennobled, or, in England especially, 
granted the legal right to use a coat of arms, and thus enrolled among the 
gentry, could at best hope that their sons or grandsons would be fully and 
completely assimilated to the quality of gentlemen. We can today, of course, 
look back and say that precisely the reason for the vogue of manuals of 
"courtesy," of self-help in learning how to behave like a gentleman, which 
from Castiglione on are very numerous in the West, was that the successful 
bourgeois were pressing very hard and Marxistically on the class above them. 
And there is some light thrown on human conduct by the obvious though not 
Marxist truth that the early modern bourgeoisie sought to imitate the man- 
ners, the 'Values" of the noblesse, and that the nineteenth- and twentieth- 
century proletariat sought to imitate the manners and values of the middle 
class. This latter imitation would appear to have been especially close and 
successful, if, by our current aristocratic Western artistic standards, unfortu- 
nate, in the Soviet Union. 

Still, the tone of these sixteenth- and seventeenth-century manuals of 
behavior is very different from that to which the American disciples of Emily 
Post and her fellow writers on etiquette are accustomed. Sir John Ferne was 
simply more outspoken than his colleagues when he concluded the long title 
page of his The Blazon of Gentry (1586), "wherein is treated of the begin- 
ning, parts, and degrees of gentlenesse," with the specific injunction: "Com- 
piled by John Feme gentleman, for the instruction of all gentlemen bearers 
of armes, whome and none other this worke concerneth." 9 That tone is 
already, by the close of the sixteenth century, the tone of a group on the 
defensive, aware that it is defending if not a lost, at least a menaced, cause. 
Ferne must have known that the "Mercers, and shopkeepers, retaylors, Cooks, 
victaylours, and Taverne-holders, Millioners, and such lyke" who, he com- 
plained, were "suffered to cloath themselves, with the coates of Gentlenes" 
would make up a large part of the public for his book. 

These gentlemen, if, as all such classes must be, they were sure of their 

9 Quoted in Ruth Kelso, The Doctrine of the English Gentleman in the Sixteenth Cen- 
tury, University of Illinois, Studies in Language and Literature, XIV, No. 1-2, 1929, p. 
208. The reader will find in Dr. Kelso's bibliography an admirable guide to the litera- 
ture of "courtesy" not only for Britain, but for the rest of the West European countries. 


The Seventeenth Century 

standards of value, were not at all sure that they would be allowed to real 
them in this real world. One may hazard the guess that in the West, at les 
no privileged aristocracy has been entirely unaware of some danger r< 
below, though it is hard to read such awareness into either Homer or 1 
Chanson de Roland. But there is a difference between fear of the masses a 
fear of those barely below perhaps, in actual economic position, above 
who are pressing hard for a share of honor, glory, prestige, all goods mu 
less readily divisible than mere money. The Due de St. Simon spends paj 
recording with full moral indignation his efforts to maintain his right to hs 
the president a mortier of the parlement (a noble indeed, but of the nev 
nobility of the civil service, not, like St. Simon, one who could claim to be 
the old feudal warrior nobility) doff his hat in the ducal presence. St. Sim 
seems to us abnormally sensitive, his insistence on such points of etique 
petty. He was indeed a great writer, but there are no grounds for holding tl 
he was otherwise very different from the rest of his order. He is at the end 
a long tradition, an exhausted tradition, in which manners and morals hs 
been frozen into a ritual exactness and exclusiveness which paradoxica 
sharpens and intensifies the struggle for prize the ritual is intended to tan 
or at least control. The French royal levee, as described in a famous passe 
of Taine, is a good example: the queen was sometimes left shivering in 1 
damp chill of the ill-heated palace of Versailles as successive delayed arriv 
of ladies of precise but varying rank and privilege prevented the rapid exec 
tion of her ritual clothing. 10 

I had written these last sentences about the fantastic order of rank in 1 
ancien regime, and the intensification the rendering ridiculous of 1 
struggle for prize that it produced when my mind reverted to my own bi 
experience as a civil servant, and to certain difficulties over a rug in one ofB 
a bare floor in another. Sociologists of business have reminded us that in 1 
great corporations rank and privilege go along naturally enough with storm 
ulcers; and we academics, aware that the entremangerie projessorale is i 
unconcerned with external signs of rank, should be careful not to cast 1 
first stone. Yet the conclusion from these parallels should not be that i 
struggle for prize, seen as a whole, never changes. Western man is the eter 
contestant, and there are never prizes enough; but the nature of the contc 
its goals and its prizes, the relative numbers of those who may participate 
it, even its rules, vary greatly or we should have no history of morals, 

1 H. A Taine, The Ancient Regime, trans, by J. Durand, New York. Holt, 1896, p. 1 
footnote 1. 


A History of Western Morals 

history of any kind. What the Due de St. Simon was fighting for was truly a 
lost cause, and because it was lost we are likely to be unfair to those who 
fought for it Especially in France, where the fight reached a climax in 
bloodshed and terror, the vanquished have either been damned by the tri- 
umphant democracy or made by their descendants and admirers into very 
much gilded lilies of the field. We in the United States, with no more than 
an incipient squirearchy in the North, an insecure group of country gentle- 
men in the South, nonetheless managed to follow the French lead in this 
matter. We damn an aristocracy we never had. 

This last European aristocracy was indeed, as we have noted above, 
keenly aware of its honors, felt and announced superiorities over the com- 
moners, defended them as well as it could; but it was not a harsh, ruthless, 
Spartan ruling class not even in East Prussia and it was not, as aristocra- 
cies go in the West, lax in its private morals, luxurious and dissolute in its 
tastes. It was, in its core and majority, which I am here taking as typical of it, 
the country gentlemen of varied title sometimes, in Britain, no more than 
"Esquire" by conventional moral standards one of the best aristocracies in 
our Western history. I do not quite dare fly in the face of common knowledge 
and maintain that even in France its virtues were responsible for its downfall; 
but in the midst of a culture that is clearly the product of the aggressive, inno- 
vating, restless energies of the foxes I confess to a certain wistful fondness 
for the virtues of these rather tired lions, the unprogressive gentlemen of the 
ancien regime. 

The gentleman was culturally though, so great is social mobility even in 
the Middle Ages and early modern times, not by 1700 in most cases genet- 
ically a descendant of the feudal knight. The apparatus of titles, coats of 
arms, possession of a landed estate, are a direct inheritance from medieval 
society. So, too, is the dedication to arms, though arms and the dedication 
had greatly changed* Great nobles might still raise and command regiments, 
but they were regiments of the royal army, under professional command, and 
ultimately subject to the direction of what was already a national ministry of 
war. The officers of these armies were indeed mostly gentlemen, and among 
them such feudal survivals as the duel still obtained. The knightly code of 
honor, the knightly awareness of caste and privilege still survived, heightened, 
as we have just noted, by the rise of rival groups, into a systematic defensive 
code. The medieval knight hardly needed to feel contempt for underlings 
though nineteenth-century fiction sometimes pictures him as so feeling and 
he certainly was not, until late in the Middle Ages, and then only in advanced 


The Seventeenth Century 

commercial societies, in danger of being tempted to go into trade. 11 The 
landed aristocracies of the old regime, however, very self-consciously erected 
barriers between themselves and the "fund lords." To vivre noblement one 
had to be above the need to work, not merely at the banausic occupations, 
but in theory at least, at any form of what we should call "business." The pure 
landed noble looked down a bit even at those who practiced law, or admin- 
istered the growing state. Highest political posts, posts as officers in army and 
navy, and general supervision of his estate just about ended what a noble was 
supposed to do without derogation of his rank in established society. The 
church, Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, in certain societies, Calvinist, would 
do, especially its highest posts, but usually these were refuges for younger 
sons. Court would do, and indeed the pensions, sinecures, the whole network 
of privilege surrounding the royal or princely court was essential to the eco- 
nomic survival of the class. The class as a whole, and on the average, did not 
do well in terms of economics, though it is not fair to blame its failures en- 
tirely on its inability to adapt itself to the new world of capitalist industry. 
Moreover, its more enterprising individual members often did well by them- 
selves, for, whatever theories of derogeance might have been, participation in 
finance, speculation, the dignified and really profitable end of the new business 
world was open to nobles everywhere, even in that supposed home of the aloof 
noble, France. The improving agricultural noble landlord, who profited eco- 
nomically as well as culturally by his improvements, is a familiar figure in 
England, and by no means unknown on the continent. 

Yet the core of the class, the smaller landed nobles and gentry, at its eco- 
nomic worst hardly above the peasantry in parts of Europe, was old-fash- 
ioned, unenterprising, economically "unfit'* and relatively law-abiding and 
morally sound. They were good conventional Christians, according to the 
accepted faith of their land; the Prussian Junkers, notably, were God-fearing 
Lutherans. The Jansenists, who were rather more than conventional Chris- 
tians, were strong among the administrative and judicial noblesse of France; 

ii Much of the above does not hold for the Italian aristocracy, which, as has often been 
pointed out, never got as divorced from urban life as the feudal aristocracies of the 
North, never became as "medieval," as "Gothic," and was not until 1860 to become part 
of a major state organization. I am in this chapter following culture on its western way, 
and am writing chiefly of the trio that will rule the Western world of power, wealth, and 
culture for some centuries, Britain, France, and the Germanics, and of the smaller but 
culturally important states around them, Netherlands, Switzerland, Scandinavian coun- 
tries. Spain, as always, was strange, intense, apart; her hidalgo class deserved to have its 
Cervantes. I shall at the end of this chapter note briefly the fact that the "European" 
aristocracy had by the seventeenth centur> already developed conspicuous national 


A History of Western Morals 

and the members of the corresponding class of small nobles in the Hapsburg 
dominions were sober, steady, practicing Catholics. 

The rural landholding nobility were through most of Europe at the very 
least no more oppressive toward the peasantry than their medieval predeces- 
sors had been. The fashion among recent British historians has been to exag- 
gerate the novelty of the actual suffering that the two great waves of enclosure, 
that of the sixteenth and that of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth 
centuries, brought on the peasantry. At any rate, the Carlylean picture of a 
French, if not, indeed, a European, noblesse doing nothing useful and living 
riotously off the labors of their oppressed inferiors, can no longer be accepted. 
Many a country gentleman did his best, as tradition directed him to do, for 
those dependent on him. For England this is admitted, if reluctantly, of the 
Squire Allworthys and many others, even of the nobility, carrying out their 
duties as justices of the peace, as customary landlords, as dispensers of char- 
ity. But even in France, where propagandists of the new order since 1789 
have made us see the noblesse as irresponsibly hounding their stewards to get 
every penny out of their peasants and, on their rare trips to the country, 
enjoying the right of first night with peasant brides and forcing the men to 
beat the frog ponds to stop croakings that spoiled sleep even in France 
the responsible country gentleman doing his duty by his dependents is by no 
means a rare figure. 12 

Their private morals seem to me to have been, even if judged by conven- 
tional Victorian standards still prevailing amongst us today when we judge 
others, on the whole rather better than those of most privileged classes. I am 
not, of course, referring to the very small group of courtiers, the top of the 
social pyramid, about whom I shall shortly say a word. But the small nobility 
and the gentry, save for the inevitable black sheep, were not dissolute. As 
gentlemen in the great tradition, they hunted, rode to hounds, drank as a 
gentleman should, conducted themselves as a gentleman who is after all 
and above all, in the great tradition, a male should. As to sex, they believed 
in and practiced what is known as the "double standard," an attitude so far as 
I know not seriously challenged among laymen in the West before the last 

12 My favorite instance is the Marquis de Ferrieres, deputy from the noblesse of Poitou 
to the Estates General of 1789, whose memoirs and letters back home to his wife have, 
because of this political post of his, been published. His letters show just the kind of 
concern with everybody on the estate one expects from the best eighteenth-century 
English squire. I realize Ferrieres is no statistical fact, but neither is the wicked, oppres- 
sive absentee. On the general state of our studies of the European noblesse of early 
modern times studies that I think confirm what I say above see A. Goodwin, ed., The 
European Nobility in the Eighteenth Century, London, Adam and Charles Black, 1953, 
also Marquis de Ferrieres, Charles Elie, Correspondance inedite, Paris, A. Colin, 1932. 


The Seventeenth Century 

years of the eighteenth century. But they were not heroically promiscuous, 
certainly not in the way later republican propaganda on the Continent was to 
paint them. Their arranged marriages certainly lasted; divorce, in spite of the 
virtuously interested efforts of a John Milton in its favor, was nowhere gen- 
erally accepted. Even at the top there were loyal, chaste, and continent hus- 
bands, from Cromwell, of whom it would be expected, to Louis XVI and 
George III, of whom it would not be expected. Among the rank and file of 
gentlemen, the slightest dip into the source materials of social history, now 
beginning to be abundant, shows many a happy marriage, adultery-free. 

The resemblance of this class to other privileged hereditary classes with 
steady moral ways, with the "lions" of Machiavelli and Pareto with, for 
example, the early Roman aristocrats increases w T hen one realizes that they 
were not very intellectual. They had, of course, both refinement and culture 
if they are compared to their early medieval predecessors. They were literate, 
and those who had literary or artistic tastes could readily satisfy them. They 
were exposed to higher education, in England already to the sequence of 
public school and Oxford-Cambridge, on the Continent more often to private 
tutors, though there the Jesuit schools were most influential in Catholic lands, 
and the military schools w r ere beginning to rise. Still, though it was by no 
means illiterate as were the nobles of Charlemagne, the tone of the class was 
against the innovating mind, against the disturbing doubts the new rationalism 
was introducing, against the kind of sensibility coming into fashion with the 
advanced. Faintly, the outlines of the coining separation between Horseback 
Hall and Heartbreak House were already visible. 

Though there are survivors of this class of small and middling landed 
nobles in our contemporary West, they survive as relics, sometimes nicely 
refurbished relics, like Williamsburg, Virginia. This is now true even for the 
Prussian Junkers, who survived longest in the modern world, and who are in 
many respects an extraordinary group, closest Christian parallel to the old 
Roman aristocracy of the Republic. The Junkers held themselves together 
long enough to play a major, though by no means a determining, role in the 
making of modern Germany. The un-Jeffersonian democratic imperial Ger- 
many or, if even so qualified, ^democratic" here offends you, I will settle 
for "mass- or Fo/Jt-based" imperial Germany that finally in 1870 emerged 
from the rivalries and complexities of the early modern Germanics was not 
a society in which the Junker could ever feel at home; indeed, the feeling 
many Junkers had about their own Bismarck, that he had with their help 
made an empire out of the wrong material industrialists, bankers, Jews, 
intellectuals, liberals, all sorts of peoples who sought to ape the ways of the 


A History of Western Morals 

dissolute, unmanly, and materialistic West Europeans and Americans is 
fully understandable in the light of their past. 

The Junkers were the descendants, spiritually and often genetically, of 
the Teutonic Knights, those organized pioneers and crusaders of the late 
Middle Ages who led the Germanic conquest of the less well-organized Slavs. 
They were a landed aristocracy, not quite in the desperate position of the 
Spartiates toward their Helots, but, still, a reasonably purebred Germanic 
minority ruling over a much more mixed group of serfs in an agrarian military 
economy, almost a frontier economy, one conquered from an enemy people. 
They were early and almost automatically converted to strict Lutheranism. By 
early modern times they had consolidated into a landed upper class loyal to 
their Hohenzollern rulers, who wisely did not interfere with basic Junker 
interests at home, a fine reservoir of officers for the Prussian army, masters 
of their own estates, which they administered with no nonsense about progress 
and humanitarian enlightenment, but which, in contrast with some of the West 
European nobilities, they did administer. The Junkers have suffered in West- 
ern opinion from their association with two great German nationalist efforts 
to gain supremacy in the Western state system. And it would be absurd to 
deny that many of the class had a part, not only in the conventional aggres- 
sions of Wilhelm's Germany, but also in the insanely romantic aggressions of 
Hitler. They were, after all, loyal soldiers, professionals loyal to a whole set 
of values which did not include critical political thought. Still, the class did 
not at heart like Hitler, nor the modern world. The Junker was one of the last 
of the old lions a disciplined, God-fearing, traditionalist, a believer in the 
order of rank in which his birth had placed him on top, a soldier by faith and 
profession, an uninquiring mind hostile to the foxes of this world, an anti- 
intellectual, but of the simple old sort, not at all like the neurotic intellectual 
anti-intellectuals we today all know too well. The Junkers, though they were 
aristocrats, remind one of the Boers of Oom Paul Kruger, children of a simple 
agrarian culture, patriarchal, rigid conformists to a code straight out of the 
Old Testament; they would have no truck with "liberty, equality, fraternity," 
nor in general with the religion of the Enlightenment, and the Western liberal 
has rightly felt that they do not belong in his world. But they should not be 
confused with the wild men of racist creeds, the naive imperialists, the eco- 
nomic expansionists, the mass of nationalists, the unprincipled idealists, who 
have made the recent German attempts to dominate, or secede from, the 
West. 13 

L See W. Goerlitz, Die Junker, C. A. Starke, Gliicksburg, 1956. 


The Seventeenth Century 

To this general account the very top of the upper classes, the active court 
nobility, is almost everywhere in the West a partial exception. Even of the 
court nobility of the later Stuarts, or of the last three Louis of France,, or of 
the big and little German princely courts, it must be said that they look pretty 
Victorian in comparison with the Roman privileged classes we read about 
in Tacitus, Suetonius, Martial, and Juvenal, or with the upper classes of 
Renaissance Italy, and look very Christian in comparison with the untamed 
Merovingians we read about in Gregory of Tours. These people suffered even 
more than the rank and file of their class in the virtuous republican propa- 
ganda inspiried by the "principles of 1776 and 1789," since their doings stood 
out so firmly; they were newsworthy, historyworthy. Still, there can be no 
doubt that theirs was not the life of sober, steady, principled adherence to 
high moral standards in the Christian tradition. Many of them were caught 
in the intense competition of high politics, and at just the time when the new 
doctrine of reason of state was ready to still any conscience that needed 
stilling. The political morality reflected in the Memoirs of Cardinal de Retz, 
for instance, is low indeed, and the record of British politics from 1640 to 
1660 and 1660 to 1689 does not remind one very much of the career of 
Clement Aflee. 

Nor is the private morality of these courts a loftly one. Kings had to have 
mistresses, as part of the display of royalty, even if they were not sexually 
very enterprising. The notorious laxities sexual promiscuity, drinking, gam- 
bling, extravagance of all sorts the cynicism reflected in the theater of the 
age, and the general abandonment of the English Restoration of 1660 are not 
quite typical, though they are hardly exaggerated in our history books. This 
moral relaxation was general, by no means limited to the court of Charles H, 
and seems to be one of those interesting and essentially modern phenomena, 
a cyclical swing in revulsion from a great collective effort to achieve moral 
reform, a phenomenon aktn to the French Thermidorian reaction of 1794, and 
also to the less-complete and violent twentieth-century revulsion from Vic- 
torian standards. 14 

14 There is a familiar, apt, and perhaps even authentic anecdote here which helps us 
understand English folk feelings on a more important matter than the private immo- 
rality of the court. There were two chief mistresses of Charles EL Louise de Keroualle, 
a Frenchwoman and a Catholic, and the English Nell Gwynn, a former comic actress. 
The Frenchwoman, made Duchess of Portsmouth, was hated by the English people, as 
the full-blown Nell was not. Nell, royally ensconced in a coach, was once mistaken for 
her rival or collaborator and hearing the angry shouts of the mob, leaned out of the 
window and said firmly: "Good people, I am the Protestant whore." The temper of the 
crowd changed at once, and she was loudly cheered. But what if she had said: U I am 
the English whore"? 


A History of Western Morals 

The conduct of the nobles of the court of Louis XIV, especially in his 
early years, was, however, hardly any better than that of the nobles of the 
court of Charles II, and is not to be explained as a revulsion, except perhaps 
from the tensions not exactly puritanically inspired of the Fronde. The 
German courts, which imitated the French in everything, of course imitated 
the French in morals. We confront once more the usual list: sexual prom- 
iscuity, in these very upper groups often, but not always, extended to permis- 
sible promiscuity for married women as well, a kind of single standard of 
laxity, as well as unscrupulous rivalry in the struggle for place and power, the 
potlatch spirit in conspicuous consumption, a fashionable fondness for the 
wit that shocks and sounds like cynicism is sometimes cynicism and the 
inevitable minor vices of gambling, drinking, idling. 

Yet even the conspicuous consumption, even the minor vices, were at the 
height of this culture in the best year of Louis XIV redeemed or, at the 
worst, very agreeably gilded by high standards and high achievements in 
taste and manners. Indeed, one can go further and assert that the ideal of 
French classicism at its best was one of the great moral ideals of the West, an 
ideal to be ranked with that of the beautiful-and-good, the medieval knight, 
the man of virtu. Like them, it was an aristocratic ideal for an aristocracy, 
though it was not untouched by an even more serious Christian sense of duty 
toward lower classes than that which had suffused the medieval ideal. It shared 
to the full the respect for the mind of the Greek ideal. It held high as virtues 
dignity of deportment, good manners, which inevitably means consideration 
thoughtful consideration for others, mesure, that very French version of 
the Greek "nothing in excess," the Christian moral code taken, duly, with 
mesure. It is not a heaven-storming ideal, but it is not a conventional one. 
From the classic Greek and Roman ideal that these gentlemen held so high it 
differed, as any Christian ideal must, by something rather more than what I 
have called the minimal puritan touch witness the court preachers, and, 
further on toward the central Christian tensions, Racine, Pascal, and yes 
La Rochefoucauld himself. It is, for many reasons, chiefly perhaps because of 
its great respect for dignity, hierarchy, "those rules of old discover'd, not 
deviz'd," its deep underlying pessimism, never romantically on exhibition, 
and its high aesthetic content, the most difficult of all Western moral ideals 
for us Americans to understand. It is the Christian ideal nearest the old Greek 
ideal, nearer by quite a bit than the morally disordered Renaissance ideal of 

Like most such ideals, it is not easily embodied. The French are no doubt 


The Seventeenth Century 

quite right; Louis XIV, all of him, his whole career, even with the mistresses, 
even with the devastation of the Palatinate, is as good a French classicist of 
the great age as one could find in the world of action. But no American can 
take Louis seriously. I should not dare suggest any of the great literary figures 
mentioned above, though, just as is true for the work of the great Athenian 
dramatists as examples of their culture, the total work of Corneille, Racine, 
and Moliere is no bad sampling. Perhaps, in spite of her femininity, one could 
take Madame de Sevigne as representative. She has, for an American, the 
great advantage of not wearing the periwig, that symbol of what we call the 
stuffed shirt which is just what these aristocrats were not, not even Louis 

Finally, we must note here that what has been written above about the 
rank and file of the European aristocracy of the old regime has made the not 
wholly justifiable assumption that there was such a European aristocracy. Was 
there not in reality nothing more than an English nobility which the honest 
historian would never equate entirely with the gentry, as I have tended to do 
French noblesse, German Adel, Spanish hidalgos, even that squabbling, 
undisciplined, ill-fated lot the Polish szlachta? Most certainly by the seven- 
teenth century the process of national differentiation in Europe was well 
along toward its modern form of nationalism, and had come to include in part 
the aristocracies. A Prussian Junker was already a very different man 
from a French provincial noble though, indeed, the medieval Teutonic 
Knight was in some ways very different from a Joinville or a Froissart. But 
we are going to have to cope with the many and difficult problems of the moral 
implications of modern Western nationalism soon enough. This nationalism, 
though it engulfed the aristocracies almost completely by the nineteenth 
century, was not primarily a product of these aristocracies. For the treatment 
I have in this chapter given the noblesse of Europe as a whole, I can bring 
out two justifications. First, there was among aristocrats everywhere, even as 
far east as Poland, a survival of the medieval feeling that nobles belong to- 
gether, that there is a European nobility above mere newly fashionable nation- 
ality. This feeling is admirably brought out in Shaw's Saint Joan in the 
conversation between the nobleman and the chaplain, one of Shaw's stock 

THE CHAPLAIN. ... I feel it, my lord: I feel it very deeply. I cannot bear to 
see my countrymen defeated by a parcel of foreigners. 
THE NOBLEMAN. Oh! you are an Englishman, are you? 


A History of Western Morals 

THE CHAPLAIN. Certainly not, my lord: I am a gentleman. Still, like your lordship, 
I was born in England; and it makes a difference. 
THE NOBLEMAN. You are attached to the soil, eh? 

THE CHAPLAIN. It pleases your lordship to be satirical at my expense: your great- 
ness privileges you to be so with impunity. But your lordship knows very well that 
I am not attached to the soil in a vulgar manner, like a serf. Still, I have a feeling 
about it; and I am not ashamed of it; and [rising wildly] by God, if this goes on 
any longer, I will fling my cassock to the devil, and take arms myself, and 
strangle the accursed witch with my own hands. 

THE NOBLEMAN, So you shall, chaplain: so you shall, if we can do nothing better. 
But not yet, not quite yet . . * 

THE NOBLEMAN [airily] I should not care very much about the witch you see, I 
have made my pilgrimage to the Holy Land; and the Heavenly Powers, for their 
own credit, can hardly allow me to be worsted by a village sorceress but the 
Bastard of Orleans is a harder nut to crack; and as he has been to the Holy Land 
too, honors are easy between us as far as that goes. 
THE CHAPLAIN. He is only a Frenchman, my lord. 

THE NOBLEMAN. A Frenchman! Where did you pick up that expression? Are these 
Burgundians and Bretons and Picards and Gascons beginning to call themselves 
Frenchmen, just as our fellows are beginning to call themselves Englishmen? 
They actually talk of France and England as their countries. Theirs, if you 
please! What is to become of me and you if that way of thinking comes into 

THE CHAPLAIN. Why, my lord? Can it hurt us? 

THE NOBLEMAN. Men cannot serve two masters. If this cant of serving their 
country once takes hold of them, goodbye to the authority of their feudal lords, 
and goodbye to the authority of the Church. That is, goodbye to you and me. 15 

Second, and quite as important, the French aristocracy held in this seven- 
teenth century, and continued to hold in the eighteenth, a degree of cultural 
and social primacy so great that it can be not unfairly taken as setting stand- 
ards for all. Certainly it is at least as fair to take the France of Louis XIV as 
"typical" of Europe as it is to take the Athens of Pericles as typical of Greece. 
But the caution is very real: the future does not belong to the aristocrats, 
certainly not to French aristocrats. Within a few generations, even the British, 
even the Prussian aristocracies will be swallowed up in the new world, to 
which we must now turn. 

w Seven Plays, New York, Dodd, Mead, 1951, "Saint Joan," pp. 838, 839, used by 
permission of the Public Trustee and The Society of Authors. 


The Age of Reason 

IN THE COURSE of the eighteenth century a **New Moral World," to borrow the 
phrase of Robert O\\en, one of the most hopeful prophets of this world, came 
into full competition with the complex of older moral worlds we Westerners 
had been living in. By this sweeping statement I do not at all wish to deny that 
the origins of the "new morality" go back well into the medieval centuries; 
nor do I wish to imply that the new wholly replaced the old then or now. I 
trust I have sufficiently insisted throughout this book that we are all, whether 
or not we are devoted to the study of history, deeply marked by all history, 
all prehistory. But there are in history periods of great and identifiable in- 
novation "revolutionary" periods, if you like and the eighteenth century 
was one of these. The French call their history from Louis XI to 1789 
"modern," from 1789 to the present "contemporary"; and though the par- 
ticular bitterness of the French political struggle no doubt accounts for this, 
to us Americans, fantastic nomenclature, the conception has applicability to 
all the West. We are still struggling with the fundamental problems the eight- 
eenth century posed; some of us, especially in the United States, are still 
proudly, but a bit worriedly, living in the eighteenth century. 

In accordance with our tried, and not very empirical, method, we may 
begin by attempting to state in as broad terms as possible the fundamental 
positions of this new morality, this new world view. To start with the broadest: 
the eighteenth-century Enlightenment sought to substitute take that word 
literally, as "put in place of for the transcendental God-determined Chris- 
tian otherworldly heaven a this-world transformed by human reason guiding 


A History of Western Morals 

human action into . . . well, the phrase is inadequate, but "a heaven on earth" 
will have to do. 

Now Americans today are so used to this basic article of faith of the eight- 
eenth-century Enlightenment though not by any means in its fresh, revolu- 
tionary, immediacy of 1789, when it took on intensities worth comparing 
with early Christian expectance of a Second Coming, when, indeed, this 
eighteenth-century eschatology was a messianic belief that it is hard for 
us to realize that, as at least belief that for all human beings the "pursuit of 
happiness" and the attainment of comfort here on earth are normal and 
expected aims, this world view is new indeed. Yet the bright and ruthless 
young French revolutionary Saint-Just quite naturally, and, one suspects, 
almost without thinking, tossed off in an oration in 1793 the remark Le 
bonheur est une idee neuve en Europe. For once, translation has no traps; 
this is simply, "Happiness is a new idea in Europe." 1 

There is, of course, a trap here: just what is meant "operationally" by 
happiness or bonheur, Gluckseligkeit? Nothing, surely, that we can agree on 
as, one hopes, we can agree on the chemical definition of "water." Is happiness 
positive, a state of rapture, joy, or at least enjoyment? Is it negative, the 
absence of suffering, frustration? Is it a process did not Jefferson write "the 
pursuit of happiness"? Is it a goal, something attainable once and for all? The 
word surely means all of these, in all their myriad combinations in the human 
being. 2 As a kind of minimal expectation among most modern Westerners, 
the happiness to which he has come to feel he has a "right," the happiness 
he "expects," includes the physical comforts, the material satisfactions, the 
absence of preventable physical suffering and most such suffering he has 
been taught to believe is preventable by the miracles of science and, quite as 
important, such degree of success in whatever kinds of agonistic competition 
he takes part in as can satisfy his self-esteem, his desire for a standing among 
his fellows. Parenthetically, the obvious needs stating here: In our pluralistic 
world there are so many such competitions, so many real "societies" even, 

1 Saint-Just is so cited in an interesting essay by Raoul de Roussy de Sales which throws 
a good deal of light on this whole topic of the novelty of the world view behind that 
deceptive phrase the "pursuit of happiness." The historian will note with no surprise that 
M. Roussy de Sales implies that Saint-Just said this of all the world, though he actually 
said it of Europe. As a good conventional child of the Enlightenment, Saint-Just no 
doubt thought of Americans as, if not quite children of nature, at least already well 
acquainted with the idea of happiness. Surely was he not right in 1793? R. de Roussy 
de Sales, fc The Idea of Happiness," The Saturday Review Treasury, New York, Simon 
& Schuster, 1957, p. 206. 

2 On many phases of this topic, see H. M. Jones, The Pursuit of Happiness, Cambridge, 
Mass., Harvard University Press, 1953. 


The Age oj Reason 

let us not forget, the family, which obstinately refuses to disappear in the face 
of the prophets of doom or bliss that most of us do have a degree of success, 
esteem, of loving and being loved, or the Fromms and even the Orwells would 
be more than right. 

This new moral concept of heaven on earth was not without its static or 
negative side; its happiness is certainly cessation of care, pain, grievous 
struggle. But was is the conventional Christian heaven much more than 
that? There is not, for the ordinary Christian, in heaven much of the kind of 
expectation embodied in heroic Valhallas or Elysian fields, nor even in what 
the Westerner understands to be the Moslem heaven. Granted that the saved 
Christian will be resurrected in the flesh, granted that the popular imagina- 
tion has rather vaguely filled heaven with material satisfactions, it is still true 
that Christian distrust of the flesh in this world has spilled over into Christian 
ideas of the next world. "Bliss" is the favorite word of the theologians for the 
heavenly state of man, and it is a very sedate and unsensual word. 

In contrast, the new r eschatology insists on the continuing struggle. In- 
deed, in what is so far its most extreme form among major organized religions, 
the Marxist faith of the Soviet Union, the coining heaven on earth wifl be 
embodied in a "classless society" in which struggle even that of the agon 
having ceased to be the evil-producing class struggle, will be the good-pro- 
ducing, the happy emulation among contented men, which we will call "Prog- 
ress." The concept of Progress is, however, central to all forms of the new 
eschatology, including most emphatically our own democratic form. As a 
systematic interpretation of the universe as it seems to man, the idea of 
Progress is a creation of the eighteenth century. In accordance with the usual 
process in human affairs that I have called reinforcement (not the well-worn 
vicious circle), this idea emerged from a late medieval and early modern 
world in which the new state was creating better public order and wider 
markets in which, in turn, merchants were increasing wealth, and inventors, 
given some margin by that wealth, were increasing mechanical power, and 
philosophers, benefiting from a similar margin, were mulling over ideas which 
were to lead to the idea of Progress. Once clearly stated and developed, which 
was not until the end of the seventeenth century, the idea of Progress 
reinforced the new state, the new economy, the new technology, and set us 
on the merry way of exponential increase we are still on. 3 

3 1 cannot here go into the general history^ and especially the intellectual history, neces- 
sary for the full consideration of the place of the idea of Progress in Western history. 
The best brief introduction seems to me still the "old" book of J. B. Bury, The Idea of 


A History of Western Morals 

The historical process which the eighteenth century elevated into an 
eschatology under the name of Progress was, to use another great term of 
the century, considered a natural process. And by this word "natural" the men 
of the time came increasingly to mean, at a minimum stage of opposition to 
Christian orthodoxy, a process misunderstood, not really described or 
accounted for, in the Christian canon and tradition, and therefore demanding 
modification of Christian orthodoxy; and at a maximum stage of opposi- 
tion to such orthodoxy, they meant a process that had gone on in spite of 
willful Christian attempts to deny and resist it, attempts that could not stop 
the process, but had indeed paradoxically, of course, but is not all evil a 
paradox of the emotions? slowed down this inevitable process. The con- 
clusion for these latter radically Enlightened was therefore clear: Christian 
orthodoxy had not to be modified, but destroyed root and branch, or it might 
be a more serious obstacle to inevitable Progress. 

The Christian and we are still pursuing these ideas among the extrem- 
ists, the atheists or materialists had to believe in a God who could and did 
interfere with the order of nature, had to believe in some "supernatural" 
which to these advanced thinkers was and they were free with the word 
quite simply "superstition." The true nature of the universe, and of man's 
place in it, was gradually being disclosed to the natural philosophers, headed 
by the incomparable Newton, who together had already made it certain that 
the time scale of Genesis was quite wrong, that the sun did not revolve about 
the earth, and that most of the miracles recounted in the Bible were contrary 
to what these natural philosophers our "scientists" called the "laws of 
nature." Common sense, the Enlightened of the eighteenth century believed, 
had always had its troubles over miracles like that of Joshua's stopping the 
sun and had come independently to a good deal of healthy skepticism; but the 
scientists had set the seal of highest truth on what common sense had only 
suspected. Man is a part of nature; a God who is not part of nature is an 
illusion; a god who is a part of nature is a superfluity. 

Such rigorous conclusions were by no means common in the eighteenth 
century. Before we go on to some of the implications of the new eschatology 

Progress: An Inquiry into Its Origin and Growth (1920) now available in a paperback 
(New York, Dover, 1955). Bury was a late Victorian freethinker who "believed in" 
Progress. But see also Carl Becker's admirable summary in the Encyclopedia of the 
Social Sciences under the word Progress and his Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Cen- 
tury Philosophers, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1932. For a brief bibliography 
of the Enlightenment, I refer the reader to my Portable Age of Reason Reader, New 
York, Viking, 1956, pp. 26-34. 


The Age of Reason 

for Western moral life, we must try to be clear about a difficult and compli- 
cated matter. The new view of the universe did not destroy the old; Chris- 
tianity did not die out. Now, two centuries later, there are more Christians on 
earth than ever before. We shall return to this topic in a later chapter. Here 
it must be enough to point out that the kind of challenge to ultimate Chris- 
tian beliefs presented by the system of beliefs just outlined was met by Chris- 
tians with a great variety of adjustments, from a deism or "natural religion" 
that could hardly be called Christian at all, through moderate compromises 
on the time scale and literalness of the Bible, to forms of ''fundamentalism," 
Catholic as well as Protestant, that seem to repudiate entirely the new world 
view of the Enlightenment. In the eyes of naturalistic-historical observer, 
however, no one not wholly insane can entirely repudiate what the last few 
centuries have brought with them. The American fundamentalist driving 
his Ford through Mencken's ''Bible Belt" cannot be what his sixteenth- 
century predecessor was, if only because he is driving a Ford and may 
live to see his son drive a Lincoln. More important., and more simple, he 
is bound in this world to feel beleaguered, to be aware that his are no longer 
the beliefs of the majority of his fellow Americans. As we shall shortly see, 
it is not even quite true that Christian ethics have survived unchanged in an 
era that has witnessed so successful an attack on Christian cosmology and 

Moreover, we must be clear about another important modification in 
what has just been written about the new world view of the Enlightenment. 
Its leading eighteenth-century exponents were intelligent, cultivated men, by 
no means contemptuous of history, by no means pure theorists unaware 
of the facts of life. The best known of them Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, 
even Bentham, indeed even Kant nourished all sorts of reservations about 
Progress, human goodness and reasonableness, the immediate perfectability 
of men, the attribution of all evil to socio-economic environment. 4 The for- 
mation of a kind of canon of belief for the religion of the Enlightenment 
is a process still going on; already it is clear, however, that many of these 
subtle and difficult thinkers who in the eighteenth century helped make the 
new faith would be quite unable to accept it now, either in its American 
or its Russian form. Some such process, I must insist again, has, from 

4 1 cannot here go at length into the many problems of intellectual history suggested by 
this last, but I strongly recommend to the reader Henry Vyverberg's recent Historical 
Pessimism in the French Enlightenment, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 
1958, which has a very useful bibliography. 


A History of Western Morals 

the historical-naturalistic point of view, marked the growth of all our 
Western higher religions. The fact that the religion of the Enlightenment 
often claims to base itself wholly on a historical-naturalistic world view (or 
"method") would not appear to have exempted it from this historical adap- 
tation to the needs and nature of the many, who never yet have been 
subtle and difficult thinkers. 

With these necessary warnings, we may continue to pursue into the field 
of ethics some of the implications of the radically anti-Christian "mate- 
rialist" position we have been outlining. The new Enlightenment had made 
much of what Christians had traditionally accepted as true seem literally 
false. In the first rationalist flush recall Euhemerus and Greco-Roman 
rationalism a great deal that to a less-confident and tamer rationalist now- 
adays seems quite possible or even probable as an event, however much he 
still refuses to accept the full Christian explanation as implied in the word 
"miracles," came in the eighteenth century to seem as untrue and impossible 
as the actual stopping of the sun by Jehovah through Joshua. I mean, for 
example, the whole effect on us of what is fashionably called the "psycho- 
somatic," and of much modern psychology, animal as well as human, which 
can easily enough accept as "facts" the story of the Gadarene swine, and 
even that of Lazarus. The more naive rationalism of the eighteenth century 
though even in this matter there are many hints in the work of the 
subtler thinkers of anti-intellectualism and existentialism to come felt 
it had to question even the facts of the Christian tradition, had to find the 
source of these lies in priestly villainy, in deliberate charlatanry, in the con- 
spiracy to fool the innocent many. 5 Now, as I have perhaps unfashionably 
insisted in this book, the Western ethical tradition is overwhelmingly in- 
tellectualist in the sense that it refuses to accept the false, the lie, as neces- 
sary, or, save in the most innocent of forms of the "white" lie, as useful. 6 To 
many a sincere convert to the new views of the Enlightenment, historical 
Christianity seemed hopelessly stained with falsehoods, whether or not they 
had been propagated in good faith. A new start seemed needed. 

But as the movement of ideas developed, emphasis was turned from the 

5 On this whole subject of eighteenth-century rationalist attitudes toward the "irrational" 
in religion and mythology, see the forthcoming book by F. E. Manuel, The Eighteenth 
Century Confronts the Gods. 

6 There is a strong-minded minority, perhaps dying out, that holds the absolutist posi- 
tion that no falsehood at all is ever justifiable. A distinguished Boston physician not 
long deceased maintained that the physician must always tell the patient the full un- 
adulterated truth as he, the physician, sees it. Confronted with such intransigeance, I 
feel inclined to twist the well-known dictum of Lord Acton into "virtue tends to corrupt, 
and absolute virtue corrupts absolutely." 


The Age of Reason 

falsehood of Christian cosmology to what seemed to the Enlightened to be 
the harmful moral effects of a conventional Christian upbringing. Some of 
these attacks on Christianity merely echoed the familiar pagan and Renais- 
sance humanist complaint that the Christian was taught to suppress natural 
instincts and appetites he ought not to suppress, that he could not enjoy 
life or let others enjoy it, that he was inevitably either a frustrated, truncated 
human being or a hypocrite. The important, and relatively new, line of at- 
tack in ethics, however, questioned the philosophical and psychological 
basis of the Christian "civil war in the breast." Robert Owen, who was born 
in 1771, put the matter at its clearest and simplest: Human conduct is 
wholly the result of the action of the environment the cultural as well as 
the physical environment upon the individual. No man is, therefore, "re- 
sponsible" for his conduct. We are, unfortunately, as Christians taught that 
we have a "free will," that we can follow a nonexistent, yet somehow in- 
vented, "conscience," that we can choose between good and evil conduct. 
On this false foundation the whole fabric of religion is erected, the suf- 
ferings of the poor, the tyranny of the rich, the crimes and misdemeanors 
of us all explained and even justified by the preposterous notion of original 
sin, and thousands and thousands of deluded individuals driven by the 
sense of guilt Christianity inculcates into unhappiness and despair, into a 
state of mind which, men being the product of such conditioning, drives 
them into the vicious circle of evil. 

Evil, then, is no consequence of an imaginary fall; Christian theology 
and all that is built on it is harmful nonsense. Evil is a consequence of the 
bad environment we grow up in from infancy, our constricting family, that 
nest of selfishness, our schooling in error, our church, our politics, our 
absurd social structure. And all this bad environment has been built up 
on the sole basis of human ignorance. Man is by nature good that is, 
he comes into this world equipped to respond to stimuli from his environ- 
ment in such a way that he will be happy, well adjusted, and, therefore, in 
the only meaning of the word that makes sense, virtuous. But the infant 
from its very first gurgle is subject to stimuli from a vicious and corrupt 
environment. Naturally, inevitably, he responds in such a way that he is 
unhappy, maladjusted, and, therefore, in the only meaning of the word 
that makes sense, wicked* 

7 1 have used a few words, like "maladjusted," that Owen would not have used, but I do 
not think I have misrepresented his position. The reader should go direct to Robert 
Owen's A New View of Society and Other Writings, ed. by G.D.H. Cole, London, Dent, 
1927, in Everyman's Library. If he has any doubts as to the persistence of Owen's view 
into our own times, I suggest he read B. F. Skinner, Walden Two. 


A History of Western Morals 

We need not here worry over the problem of how man, that naturally 
well-adjusted creature, got so badly maladjusted. Owen seems not to have 
worried over it, nor did many of the Enlightened, save an occasional subtle 
soul like Diderot, who came to question the dogma of environmentalist!!. But 
we must note that, having reached this point, the Enlightened tended to 
divide, roughly, into two schools of thought as to what must follow. Both 
agreed that existing environment produced evil. They did vary somewhat 
in their emphasis on which particular environment, mostly actual institu- 
tions, was most responsible for this evil. Someone at some time in the 
eighteenth century no doubt blamed every institution that ever has been 
blamed, but in contrast with later tendencies to blame economic and political 
institutions, the thinkers of the eighteenth century reserved their heaviest fire 
for religious institutions, and in particular for the Church of Rome. Still, they 
spared very little of what existed. Theirs was to be a new moral world. Where 
they divided was on the problem of how to bring about the transformation 
of the bad environment into the good. 

One group, of which the most clear-cut, logical, and extreme repre- 
sentative turns out to be no logic-loving Frenchman, but a man of that 
nation of distrusters of logic, the English, William Godwin, author of 
Political Justice (1793), we may call the philosophical anarchists. God- 
win held that if each man did what he wanted to do, free from all compul- 
sions put on him by any "organization," if he were free from the laws, rules. 
and, above all, the rulers of any institution from the family to church and 
state, he would so act that he and all men would be happy and virtuous. 
What we have here is the purest, and the most naive, consequence drawn 
from the great environmentalist dogma of the natural goodness and reason- 
ableness of man. The anarchist believes that man is born with a kind of 
self-regulating instinct if the somewhat unfair and gross metaphor may 
be pardoned, with a kind of very complicated and effective spiritual auto- 
matic regulator, or thermostat which always works perfectly if its pos- 
sessor does not try to improve on it, tamper with it, and, worst of all, try 
to replace it in other human beings by exercising power over them. 

The great tampering that has made this thermostat so useless in our 
society is, for the anarchist, law, the attempt to regulate, which means to 
treat as identical, repetitious, and, therefore, predictable what in reality is 
varied, spontaneous, ever-changing. Marriage will do as a sample of the 
vain, or, rather, harmful, attempt to regulate human conduct by law. If 
the thermostats of both partners are working the way nature intended them to 


The Age oj Reason 

work, the legal formality of marriage and the absurd promise to love, 
honor, and obey are unnecessary; if, in this particular relation, the miracu- 
lous little thermostats indicate that all is not well, then there is no loving 
and honoring, and should be no obeying there is no marriage. Basically, 
the anarchist blames the bad environment that makes for evil on what he 
considers a perverse attempt to construct an artificial environment. All that 
needs to be done, then, is to remove this environment, remove all insti- 
tutions that prescribe, regulate, compel human action; all that needs to be 
done is to leave the individual really free ("really" is, of course, the greatest 
of Western adverbs). This anarchistic position is in ethics really and at last 
the "immanentist" position Mr. Stace attributes, somewhat too confidently, 
in my opinion, to the Greeks (see above, p. 56). Unlike the Greeks, the 
anarchist is untroubled by worries over necessity, fate, hubris, or any of the 
other cosmic troubles that haunted those sunny Greeks. The position of the 
philosophical anarchist is the gentlest, most hopeful, of positions men have 
taken toward the universe; it is the position modern sentimental Christian 
liberalism influenced by whatever also influenced the anarchists, including, 
such is the nature of what I have called "reinforcement," the work of the 
anarchists themselves often assigns quite anachronistically to Jesus. 

The other group is, in respect to the problem of how to deal with the 
bad existing environment, at a polar opposite from the anarchists. These 
are the planners, the manipulators of environment, the "enlightened despots," 
to use a consecrated historical term. Many, perhaps most, of them were 
good enough children of the Age of Enlightenment to hold that all men 
are naturally good and reasonable, and that once the crippling effects of the 
present bad environment on the mass of human beings have been remedied, 
once they have become whole men, enlightened men, then the program, or 
absence of program, of the philosophical anarchists can be followed. But 
right now they hold that the many are crippled, their natural instincts warped 
or suppressed, their natural intelligence undeveloped in a world that leaves 
them ignorant, or, worse yet, full of mistaken ideas. They are sheep led by 
bad shepherds. But fortunately there are good shepherds available, the small 
but potentially adequate minority of men who really understand the situa- 
tion, and who have the good will to remedy it the Enlightened. The neces- 
sary steps are then clear. First of all, the bad shepherds, the present rulers 
in church and state and society, must be supplanted by good shepherds. 
The good shepherds will then gradually bring the sheep along the path to 
transformation into the human beings they were meant to be. They will 


A History of Western Morals 

educate, they will make laws, they will enforce laws, they will even have re- 
course to dictatorship a virtuous dictatorship, such as the later Marxist 
"dictatorship of the proletariat." They will not, and certainly not at the be- 
ginnings of the process, consult the sheep, let alone allow the sheep themselves 
to choose their shepherds. We have perhaps worked a rather worn figure of 
speech to absurdity. The point is clear: the position of the thinkers of this 
group is not a democratic one. They are authoritarians for and of the moment, 
however much, like their contemporary Marxist-Leninist successors, they 
may claim to be libertarians for and of the future. 

Neither of these groups of moral revolutionaries of the eighteenth century 
included violence in their prescriptions for society. We are today, whether we 
like revolutions or not, thoroughly used to the process of violent change in 
high politics. But until the French Revolution astonished the world, the men 
of the eighteenth century, true to their upbringing, expected the Enlighten- 
ment to do its work in the minds and hearts of few or many in such a way 
that the transition to the new moral world would be peaceful and gradual. The 
French Reign of Terror added a new intensity of hope or fear to political 
morality in the West. 

In real life, neither of the groups I have just sorted out by analysis into 
the polar opposition of anarchist (libertarian democrat) and enlightened 
despot (authoritarian elitist) comes out so neatly separate. The plans and 
the practices of thinkers and doers alike were generally a mixture of the two. 
This is especially true of some of the most influential of the great thinkers, of 
none more so than Rousseau. There is still a debate, into which we need not 
go here, as to whether the Social Contract comes out on the side of liberty 
for the individual or on the side of authority for the enlightened ruler, or 
"society." Rousseau, who was, after all, a philosopher if not a philosophe, 
was sure he had solved the problem implied in the antithesis of liberty-author- 
ity; the individual who obeyed the general will was wholly free, since he was 
thereby obeying himself his better self, his true self, his moral self. 8 Rous- 
seau was driven in the course of this abstract analysis to the famous conclu- 
sion that the individual who failed to recognize his true self in the general will 
could be "forced to be free," presumably by those who did recognize his true 
self for him. 9 

8 Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses, trans, by G. D. H. Cole, 
new Amer. ed., New York, Dutton, 1950, Chap. VII, p. 13. 

9 A brief note here may keep us from getting deeply involved in one of those nagging 
philosophical questions I have tried in my introduction to sidetrack. (See above, p. 
8.) The nominalist, the tough-minded, the realist of common sense will reject Rous- 


The Age of Reason 

Even among the theorists, then, the two logical extremes were barren 
poles indeed. The authoritarians did not urge that we all be slaves to the 
wisest man on earth; the anarchists did not urge that all regularities, habits 
as well as laws, be banished from human life. In the balance, however, it is 
safe to say that the Enlightenment was generally on the side of authority 
virtuous, enlightened authority, it goes without saying. The philosophes were 
bright, clever, gifted men, who have to be called intellectuals, for they were 
already marked out as a group that dealt more with words than with things, 
and more with words as signs of "reality" and ''values" than with words as a 
direct means of commanding, or manipulating, human beings. Such bright 
clever men can hardly be democrats at heart not even when they call them- 
selves New Dealers. The democrat may I say, without much irony, the 
true democrat? has got to be patient with human imperfections, even with 
human stupidity, has got, I suspect, to feel in his heart that stupidity (stupid- 
ity in matters dear to our Western philosophical, ethical, and aesthetic tradi- 
tion, stupidity in matters verbal) is not the real form of original sin. Voltaire 
was no more a democrat than was Calvin; both would have agreed with 
another nondemocrat, John Mill, that "ordinary human nature is so poor a 
thing-" 10 

Yet the overwhelming, the abiding effect of eighteenth-century thought 
on man and his destiny was to reinforce mightily all that was making for 
modern democratic egalitarianism. The century of the uncommon man paved 
the way for our century of the common man. Voltaire and Mill are heroes of 
the democratic tradition; so, too, is Squire Jefferson, founder of a republic he 
thought of, at bottom, as Roman, based on free, virtuous fanners, and who 
would surely have been horrified could he have foreseen the America of an- 
other squire, Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

There is no great difficulty here. The thinkers of the Enlightenment 
merely helped on their help was essential a process begun long before, a 

seau's "solution.** If I, in the only conscious mind I have got, do not want to do some- 
thing, and if anyone or anything human, from policeman through priest to a majority 
vote of a group I "belong to," forces me to do that thing, then I am not at that mo- 
ment "free." But the toughest-minded realist must admit that some such piece of 
thought-feeling conditioning as that of Rousseau's ''general will" does seem in the 
long run to reconcile many of us to giving in to, to obeying, persons, other wills; as 
children of the West, and especially of the West of modern science, we no longer re- 
gard, as our ancestors of not so long ago did regard, our relations with a to us im- 
personal "'nature" as involving any other will than our own. 

10 L S. Mill, "The Claims of Labour," Dissertations and Discussions (1874-1875), Vol. 
H, p. 288. 


A History of Western Morals 

process we have traced in the history of morals through Renaissance, Refor- 
mation, the new state, and the new science, a process of the utmost complex- 
ity, from which I wish now merely to single out a single element of great 
importance in understanding the process: the many not all, but the millions, 
nonetheless came to want, to expect, a great deal, both in material satisfac- 
tions and in spiritual (substitute "psychological" or any other word that will 
do the same work for you if, as one end product of just the process I am 
trying to understand, you cannot face the word ''spiritual") satisfactions that 
had hitherto been limited to the few. The many came to expect to be happy, 
comfortable, and, what is more important and much more difficult to analyze, 
they came to expect as individuals some, at least, of the satisfactions that go 
with participation in the Western, ritualized competitions I have called 
agones, or the struggle for prize. This, nothing less, is what lies behind modern 
Western egalitarianism: prizes for all. 

Traditional Christianity, which did emerge from a society with egalitarian 
elements, had through its promise of salvation given to the humblest in this 
world equality with the proudest, if it had not, as the Nietzscheans have al- 
ways insisted, given the weak, the botched, the failures, an absurd promise 
of superiority. 

But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall 
exalt himself shall be humbled; and whosoever shall humble himself shall be 
exalted. 11 

But the effect of the moral revolution of early modern times for once the 
word is not just rhetoric was to cast grave and spreading doubt among the 
many as to the reality of the Christian afterlife, and to suggest to them that 
they had better try to get the promised satisfactions of salvation right here on 
earth. Do you wish to feel the difference? Read again in its context the pas- 
sage from the Gospel quoted just above, or, better, that passage from Mary's 
hymn to the Lord: 

He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. 

He hath put down princes from their thrones, and hath exalted them of low degree. 

The hungry he hath filled with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty 

away. 12 

This last is, for the Gospels, pretty earthy and concrete and fully in the 

11 Matthew 23: 11-12. 
i* Luke 1:51-53. 


The Age of Reason 

Judaic tradition; but put it beside the preamble to the Declaration of Inde- 
pendence, or, better yet, that good, unexalted, commonsensical poetic asser- 
tion of the modern egalitarian: 

The rank is but the guinea's stamp, 
The man's the gowd for a' that. 13 

Let us then recapitulate, simplifying and certainly exaggerating in the 
process. The traditional Christian world view was that God had created the 
world just five or six thousand years ago as described in Genesis, that he had 
made it for man, that man through Adam had sinned, was banished from 
Eden and condemned to suffer, that through the miraculous intervention of 
the Son of God, sinful man, though cursed by Adam's fall with original sin, 
might, as a Christian sacramentally made part of the church, gain salvation 
in an afterlife, that conduct in accordance with membership in that church 
and with the rules of morality canonically prescribed both faith and works 
was the best sign that a man would be saved, and conduct markedly not so 
in accordance, above all, such conduct not repented of and sacramentally 
absolved, was a sure sign that a man would be eternally damned. Add to this 
world view the general tone of orthodox Christianity in favor of established 
social and economic inequalities, a conservatism not really breached by peri- 
odic revolts to restore "primitive" Christian unworldliness or antiworldllness 
(both of which were quite different, as I have insisted, from eighteenth-cen- 
tury egalitarian democracy) and the Christian unwillingness to make sensu- 
ous pleasures quite free from dangers, and you have something very different 
from what most of us Westerners now accept as a world view. The Christian 
could and did enjoy himself even in fornication but, unless he was very 
stupid or very wicked indeed, he had a sense of guilt about it; the Christian 
could and did accept this ordinary world of cause and effect, of predictable 
regularities but, unless he was a very advanced skeptic, he believed that God 
could turn everything topsy-turvy if He wished, and, what is more important, 
that God actively and yet inscrutably made the regular perversely irregular, as 
we all know it to be, from the fall of the dice to the fall of kings. But I am 
unnecessarily wordy: to the traditional Christian the other world of heaven, 
hell, and purgatory was there, real, visible, certain; Dante, if I may use a word 
I suspect has never been used of him, was in these places a reporter. 

13 "For A' That and A* That," The Poetical Works of Robert Burns, New York, Oxford 
University Press, 1948, p. 328. 


A History of Western Morals 

The new view started from a different cosmogony. Newton had finished 
what Copernicus had long ago begun; the earth was just a minor planet 
spinning on its axis in orbit around the sun, clearly not the center of the 
universe. By the end of the eighteenth century geology and paleontology had, 
at least for the Enlightened, disposed of the chronology of Genesis, and, for 
the really advanced, suggested that the "hypothesis" of God was hardly neces- 
sary. The universe in this view was the vast mechanism we call "nature," and 
man was wholly a part of it; the French physician La Mettrie wrote a book 
entitled Man the Machine (1748). At death, obviously, the machine stops 
and begins to disintegrate; there can be no afterlife, no immortal soul, indeed, 
in the Christian sense, no soul at all. What we call a soul is really no more 
than consciousness, a function of the central nervous system which behavior- 
ist psychologists like Condillac, with leads from Locke, had already begun to 
study. This vast mechanism of the universe is, however, one in which there is 
the rather mysterious phenomenon of organic life, sentience, a not-quite-me- 
chanical, at least not-quite-predictable, apparently related series of responses 
to stimuli from the environment. At this point, or somewhere near it, the En- 
lightened found room for the Christian, I think, has to say smuggled in a 
teleology, in fact an eschatology, an ethics, a religion, one which, like all 
Western religions, was to proliferate in sects, heresies, and schisms, a religion 
which, in constant mutual interaction with Christianity, is the new religion of 
the modern West. 

We shall be for the rest of this book much engaged in the task of tracing 
some few of the myriad forms of this interaction between the world view of 
the Enlightenment and that of Christianity. Note carefully that I write of 
interaction, not of polar, mutually exclusive opposition. It seems clear that no 
Christian, not even the fundamentalist, can be in the 1950's what he would 
have been in the 1650's; but it is also clear that there could have been no 
Enlightenment had there been no Christianity. I do not think that in any 
sensible foreseeable future either world view will vanquish the other; one can- 
not say, cecl tuera cela, this will kill that. But there does exist in our West 
this great, Enlightenment-born religion which in many of its forms specifically 
declares itself to be anti-Christian, or non-Christian. I am going to use from 
time to time, as the generic term for this religion, the term "free thought," but 
the fact is that, as I have already mentioned (see above, p. 148n.), unfortu- 
nately, there is no accepted generic term. Orthodox Marxism-Leninism (it is 
now proper, I take it, to omit "Stalinism"), which is in some ways the free- 
thinking analogue to Calvinism, is, thanks to its success in the Soviet Union, 


The Age of Reason 

the most clear-cut and powerful of these sects, very explicit in its intolerant 
repudiation of Christianity. At the other extreme are some exceedingly "lib- 
eral" forms of what their holders claim to be Christian faiths, but which to an 
outsider trying to be objective seem to have scrapped too much of historical 
Christianity to have the claim granted. Such, for example, is American Uni- 
tarianism, in its Left Wings, at any rate; there is still debate among the Uni- 
tarians as to whether or not they wish to be called "Christians." Almost all 
these variants can be traced back to the eighteenth century; even Marxism- 
Leninism, though it does owe its actual form to these two prophets, has very 
clear origins in eighteenth-century thought. 14 

It is impossible to make good quantitative estimates of the number of 
believers of these shades of opinion, either for the eighteenth century or, for 
that matter, for the present. Even in the Soviet Union, to say nothing of the 
satellites, it does not seem as if Communism has wholly destroyed Christian- 
ity. In the free world, statistics of actual membership in organized religious 
bodies are in themselves inadequate measures of actual individual attitudes. 
There is the great obstacle of the religiously "indifferent," typified in a coun- 
try like France by the anticlerical Radical Socialist who calls in the priest at 
his deathbed, in America by the Sunday golfer who goes to his Protestant 
church on Christmas and Easter, and even more by the churchgoer, even 
church member, who conforms for social and economic reasons but who really 
sees the universe as the freethinker sees it. This last type, by the way, is very 
different from the medieval conformist Christian, or the indifferent, comfort- 
able, shallow Christian of any past age, for these simply had no alternative 
world view; in those moments when they had as we all do to face meta- 
physical anxiety, they had to fall back on the Christian cosmology. All in all, 
we had better give up attempts at statistics, and conclude simply that there 
are in our modern West millions of freethinkers of all shades, none of them 
theologically, eschatologically, ethically, emotionally quite Christian. 

14 1 must relegate to a footnote the actual spectrum or ladder of eighteenth-century 
religious attitudes, which would go up or down, depending on the position of the ob- 
server, from Roman Catholicism of the extreme Right say, that of the eighteenth- 
century University of Salamanca through the sacramental "revealed" religions, the 
Leftist sects, to Unitarianism, deism, u natural religion" in all its forms, most of them 
religions of the heart, of a nice nature, "pre-romantic," to its end in materialism and 
atheism. There is not much room for skepticism or Pyrrhonism on the ladder, and no 
one had yet coined the word "agnostic." It is almost certain that a respectable deism 
was the ordinary position of the Enlightened. Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought 
in the Eighteenth Century, 3rd ed., 2 vols. (London, Smith, Elder, 1902), gives in great 
detail the niceties of these theologies for England, a representative country. I have dealt 
with the subject briefly in the Introduction to my Portable Age of Reason Reader. 


A History of Western Morals 


This last statement may seem to contradict the often-made assertion, to which 
something I have written earlier may seem to give support, that the 
Enlightened, though they rejected the theology and ritual and the rest of 
organized Christianity, retained Christian ethics. It would be more accurate 
to say that many of the Enlightened did preserve what they thought was 
Christian ethics, or the best of Christian ethics, and that they could find in 
the immense range of Christian historical experience some justification for 
almost all they considered ethically right; but also that at the many points 
where their own theology or metaphysics words they would never have used 
of their own world view implied some modification of Christian ethics, they 
made very important modifications, modifications that have often worked 
back into accepted Christianity. I must insist that the range of freethinking is 
very great, that, like Christianity, this new religion is not monolithic, and that 
therefore generalizations I make about the new ethics are subject to the usual 
caution: exceptions abound. It may even be possible that somewhere on earth 
a vigorous, vocally anti-Christian freethinker had a set of ethical values iden- 
tical with those of some Christian of old. I must confess I am at loss for a 
specific example of such a freethinker; no gentle and respectable Victorian, 
not even that ascetic hedonist John Stuart Mill, so incapable of anything you 
or I could accept as hedone, or pleasure, will quite do. With this caution, then, 
I shall consider the new directions the Enlightenment gave to ethics, the 
new content though also in part old it gave to morals, under two broad 
headings, humanitarianism and utilitarianism. 

Eighteenth-century humanitarianism is newer than you think it is. 15 1 do 
not mean that no human being in the West ever felt sympathy for the suffer- 
ings of his fellow men before the eighteenth century, nor ever sought to 
alleviate the miseries he saw all about him. There is a vein or strand of this 
direct, emotional recoil of pity in Christianity. There is abhorrence of human 
gamecock victors in that vulgar physical agon that the Christian firmly con- 
demned, and there is, perhaps in all but the saints a bit weaker than this 
damning of the victors, a sympathy for the losers, the victims, the underdogs. 
Pity is an emotion shared by many of the old pagan world of the Greeks and 
the Romans. 

w I refer the reader to my article "Humanitarianism" in the Encyclopedia of the Social 
Sciences, Vol. V, pp. 244-248, and especially to the book of Hermann Kantorowicz, 
The Spirit of British Policy and the Myth of the Encirclement of Germany, trans, by 
W. H. Johnston, London, Allen & Unwin, 1931. 


The Age of Reason 

But the humanitarianism of the modern world differs from the pity or 
charity of earlier times in many ways. It was based, as we have just seen, on 
the very different world view that sees suffering, not as part of the order of 
nature and human nature, above all, not as ordained by God, but as unnat- 
ural, as the product of accumulated human errors happily remediable now 
that we know what the errors were. Hence the new humanitarianism was 
organized in a manner familiar to us all today, not after the pattern of Chris- 
tian charities, which to the Enlightened seemed stopgaps, part of the old 
errors, but in pressure groups aiming at legislative measures to cure or pre- 
vent given suffering, or as official or semiofficial governmental bodies with 
similar aims, or as outright political parties organized to bring heaven to 
earth. By the nineteenth century all these organizations were full-blown, 
perhaps clearest in Britain: voluntary societies like the Society for the Preven- 
tion of Cruelty to Animals ( 1 824) or the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty 
to Children (1884); the new Poor Law administrative system (1834) de- 
signed under Benthamite auspices as the "scientific" way to deal with the 
problem of poverty, and a good example of the difficulties of diagnosis and 
treatment of such evils, for a whole wing of the radical humanitarians thought 
the New Poor Law shockingly harsh; and, finally, such political radicals as 
the Chartists, the British form of the revolutionary plan to bring heaven to 
earth, or, better yet, the many American communist experiments from Brook 
Farm to New Harmony. All these movements have clear origins in the 
eighteenth century. 

I have used Britain for most of my examples partly because many hu- 
manitarian reforms, such as the abolition of the relatively new Negro slavery, 
were in fact first achieved there, partly because the variety of organizations, 
from private to public, was greatest there, and partly because the British, 
more than any other people, extended their sympathies to the whole animal 
world, and especially to horses and dogs. But France, which most English- 
speaking people think of as a land inhabited by logic-ridden individuals 
relatively insensitive to the sufferings of other individuals, incapable of the 
sentiment of sympathy, would do quite well as an example. AslProfessor 
Shelby T. McCloy has shown in a recent study, the French in thetlighieenth 
century were keenly aware of the demands of humanite and in$iuted con- 
crete reforms in a wide range of fields. 16 

16 The Humanitarian Movement in Eighteenth-Century France, Lexingljlli, Ky n Uni- 
versity of Kentucky Press, 1957. Professor McCloy studies the deed |l well as the 
word, institutional as well as intellectual history, and in his brief introdlltory chapter 


A History of Western Morals 

The simple rationalism that made suffering out to be no more than the 
result of bad environment, bad "arrangements," is, however, only part of 
modern humanitarianism. The emotional elements are vastly more compli- 
cated. The favorite reproach of moderate and conservative men, that radical 
revolutionaries and even plain reformers do not so much pity the failures, the 
weak, as envy and hate the strong, the successful, is like most such stereo- 
types, unfair but by no means wholly untrue. There is such a component in 
the great protesters, a Rousseau on the edge of paranoia, a Voltaire too bright 
for love but not for vanity; it is even stronger, one suspects, in the professional 
rebels, the Tom Paines, the Marats. Even in such men as these, however, the 
particular form of not-quite-hypocrisy here involved is not only even better 
concealed from the not-quite-hypocrite himself than in cases where more 
private vices are involved, but it is also more thoroughly mingled with what 
one has to call genuine pity, genuine moral indignation. Violent radicalism is 
at least the tribute selfishness pays to altruism. 

There are other, and deeper, emotional currents in humanitarianism, cur- 
rents that have so far escaped the rational analysts, that, indeed, some histo- 
rians like to maintain do not exist. I refer to those great shifts of taste, fashion, 
emotion, surely not subject to regular periodicity, but still cyclical, during 
which men revolt in the name of what they feel is simpler, fresher, more 
"natural," against the complications of their civilization; and since the intel- 
lectual content of our education, our literature, our arts, our legal and moral 
codes does tend to get complicated, these revolts tend to have a strong 
component of what is nowadays fashionably called "anti-intellectualism." The 
eighteenth century, century of rationalism, of formalism, of artificiality, was 
also the century of romantic emotionalism, of appeals to natural simplicity, of 
revolt against not only the bad environment, but the whole environment. Our 
new moral world came not only out of the relatively simple and rationalistic 
world view I have outlined just above; it came out of a deep-seated, wide- 
spread movement among the determining groups of Western society; a move* 
ment articulate enough, often put in terms that sound misleadingly intellect- 
ualist, but at bottom, like early Christianity, a really ferocious, irrational, and 

gives a useful survey of expressions of the humanitarian ideal including a reference 
(p. 3, note 5) "where Voltaire speaks of being dominated by love of the human race.' " 
I think it clear that no early or medieval Christian could have used that exact phrase, 
so definitely omitting God, Voltaire himself, surely, was not so dominated, even though 
he said he was. 


The Age of Reason 

highly successful revolt against what the rebels liked to call tyranny, but which 
was actually more often nothing but convention, tradition, the routine and 
the dullness of the settled, the established, the unpricked. But, of course, these 
common constraints are sometimes felt as tyranny by the Faustian tempera- 
ment and perhaps, up to a point, even by the Apollonian. 

For the most part, the articulate eighteenth-century rebels of the heart 
had high hopes for the future. Against society and its tyrannical conventions 
they set the free natural man and his life-seeking, life-giving spontaneity. 
They found, most of them only through the printed page of travel and explo- 
ration, existing examples of the natural man, virtuous but not dull, dignified 
but not vain, above all, spontaneous, tearful, joyful, sentimental, and un- 
ashamed. Such were the Hurons, the South Sea Islanders, indeed most sav- 
ages; such, a little more deliberately wise, a little more formal, but still not 
corrupt and vicious, like Europeans, were Chinese, Hindus, Persians; such, 
perhaps a bit too calculating, a bit too laden with Christianity and other 
hindrances from their original homeland, were even the North American 
white colonists, led by those children of nature Franklin and Washington. We 
are tempted today to believe that much of the cult of the primitive in the 
eighteenth century was insincere, affected; some of it, I suspect, was the work 
of publicists we really are already in modern times, and you may give the 
word its full modern content glad to furnish the public with the guidance 
they thought it wanted. 17 

The writers of the eighteenth century had no trouble finding models of 
virtue nearer home nor, for that matter, did the artists, devoted also to the 
good cause. Novels, plays especially the comedie larmoyante, practiced by 
no less a person than Diderot essays, didactic paintings, all celebrated the 
same truth: among the poor, the simple, the peasants, the workers, the in- 
spired and exceptionally gifted and sensitive even among the upper classes, 
there is still to be found in our corrupt eighteenth century the virtues of 
gentleness, loving-kindness, mutual help, true charity (not the corrupting 
"works" of Christianity), and, where a wicked civilized person or a wicked 

17 Such, I think, was Lahontan, one of the earliest, whose work is not available in 
English. Baron de Lahontan, Dialogues curieux entre I'auteur et un sauvage de bon 
sens qui a voyage, et Memoires de I'Amerique septentrionale, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins 
Press, 1931. Voltaire's Huron came, no doubt, out of Lahontan's. Surely Voltaire, 
Montesquieu, and even Oliver Goldsmith wrote tongue in cheek when they had their 
savages, their Persians, their Chinese, show up the injustices, the pretenses, the many 
defects of European society. Still, this is a curious variant of a genre, satire, which is 
never easy to classify as sincere or insincere. 


A History of Western Morals 

civilized institution does not interfere, true happiness. Here, in short, are the 
humanitarian's prized virtues. 18 

We are with the eighteenth century in modern times in many ways, in 
none more clearly than in its variety, its multanimity. Since with the eighteenth 
century the reading public was already numerous, numbering certainly in the 
millions, though still far from universal literacy, since printing and engraving 
were relatively cheap, it is quite true that some of this variety can be attrib- 
uted to the fact that we have more specimens surviving. But not all. Some of 
it, like the multanimity of the late Greco-Roman world, is a sign of the times, 
a fact. Along with the literature and the painting of the simple life, of the 
children of nature, there is the formal poetry of the heroic couplet and the 
Alexandrine, the witty comedies of a Marivaux, a Sheridan, the not very 
natural pornography of a Restif de la Bretonne, the work of so many, many 
men of all sorts in no sense children of nature, and quite incapable of pretend- 
ing to belief in natural virtue as a foil to civilized vice a Samuel Johnson, a 
Burke, a Diderot in most of his moods, a Voltaire in all of his, a Kant (whose 
abounding virtue is very far from the primitive), a Goethe who recovered 
very quickly from Werther (was that perhaps the really big dishonest Holly- 
wood job of the century?), a Choderlos de Laclos, a Sade, both still well 
ahead of most of us on sex the list could be long indeed. And remember 
that Boucher was quite as popular as Greuze and probably with much the 
same people. 

Nevertheless, what I have called humanitarianism, or, better, perhaps, 
humanitarianism plus romanticism, is the eighteenth-century translation into 
emotional terms of the new world view that man is born to happiness, that 
now at last we human beings know enough, feel enough, to conduct ourselves 
as the morally perfect nearly perfect, at worst beings we were meant by 
Mother Nature to be. Still, among the intellectually enlightened it is possible 
to discern already the beginnings of one of the great and painful stresses we 
still suffer from the conflict so evident among contemporary American lib- 
erals between the love for common men that their principles, or at least their 
sense of history and tradition, tell them they ought to have and the compound 

1S A sampling: Rousseau's Noitvelle Heloise or, among the forgotten, any novel by 
Robert Bage or Thomas Holcroft; for a play, Diderot's Fils naturel, or that play of 
Kotzebue's, Kabal und Liebe, which in English adaptation they played in Mansfield 
Park; for more formal philosophical treatment, Shaftesbury's Characteristics; for didac- 
tic painting, almost anything of Greuze, which should be compared with some of 
Hogarth's moral sequences to bring out what happened as the century wore on. 


The Age of Reason 

of fear, distrust, and contempt for the common man that brews somewhere 
inside them. 

This conflict is in its most rudimentary stages in the century of the En- 
lightenment, hardly visible on the surface even in such scoraers of system and 
consistency as Rousseau. It was still too easy to find a few appropriate villains 
who were responsible for the evils. I do not suppose any conspicuous 
eighteenth-century thinker on the side of the angels could ever let himself go 
as did that culture hero of American liberalism Walt Whitman in praise of 
animals and dispraise of men, common men, democratic men, men Whitman 
ought to love. 

They do not sweat and whine about their condition, 

They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, 

They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, 

Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, 

Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, 

Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth. 19 

Nor could an eighteenth-century European, even in a Europe where only man 
was vile, feel like the present-day American fanatics whose skill at pressure- 
group politics has set aside thousands of acres of our "wilderness areas" to be 
free even from the corruption of the wheel (perhaps that first one was, after 
all, the wickedest of inventions) . For these American primitivists of our own 
day the only prospect that can please is one with no trace of humankind at all. 
The great hope in mankind for them has ended and not only for them, if 
we may judge from the intellectual temper of our age in the great disgust, 
a disgust so universalist as to have little consoling power. 

It was, however, in the eighteenth century a great hope indeed. The old 
wicked world was to end in a First Coming of Reason, Nature, Humanity. 
These men of the Enlightenment, whom the Victorians saw as cold, sapless, 
urtimaginative, unemotional rationalists, were in word and deed religious en- 
thusiasts, youthful, daring, full of gusto, founders of a faith men still seek to 
live by. It is a hard faith for us today to live by, as we cannot help learning. 
Its kingdom is so definitely of this earth that we find it hard to await a Second 
Coming with due patience and hope. But for the men who had seen the 
American Revolution followed by the French Revolution, the great day was 

is Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself," No. 32, in The Complete Poetry and Prose of 
Walt Whitman, ed. by Malcolm Cowley, New York, Pellegrini, 1948, I, 89. There is 
an amazing amount of "liberalism" packed into these lines, a great disgust that spills 
over onto something more than mere environment-as-evil. 


A History of Western Morals 

at hand. Condorcet, outlawed and in hiding from the Jacobins who had mis- 
understood the new gospel, sat down to write his philosophy of history, pub- 
lished after his death in prison as Esquisse d'un tableau historique des prog- 
res de Vesprit hwnain.- From primitive man onward, Condorcet traced in 
nine epochs the gradual rise of man, his progress toward the immanent goal 
of history. With his own time had begun the tenth epoch, the end of history 
and the beginning of ... shall we call it the attainment of universal happi- 
ness? With Condorcet we find the religion of the Enlightenment in perhaps 
its purest form. 21 


The utilitarian strand is interwoven with the humanitarian in eighteenth- 
century ethics. The century was certainly conscious of the conflict between 
the head and the heart. Indeed, the man of feeling in Diderot rebelled vio- 
lently against the stodgy rationalist Helvetius, and he composed a long com- 
mentary on the latter's extreme version of the thesis that human beings can be 
rationally manufactured according to the best standards. 22 Perhaps even a 
Condorcet was dimly aware of the difficulty underlying the world view of the 
Enlightenment and of the twentieth century: the naturalistic humanitarian 
sentiment must basically push toward letting men do what they want to do, 
think and feel at any given moment what they want to; for men, like most 
other mammals, do not like cages; the utilitarian rationalist must keep trying 
to induce, or even to force, men to do what he knows they ought to do, what 
would be "best" most useful for them. But the ordinary enlightened man 
in this century of the beginnings of our modern hopes was not yet aware of the 
full import of the distinction I have made above between the way of the 
philosophical anarchist, the way of the heart, and the way of the enlightened 
despots, the way of the head. 

Though the term "utilitarianism" owes its success to John Mill in the next 

20 Trans, by June Barraclough as Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the 
Human Mind, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1955. 

21 So pure that the mild paradox is irresistible: this world has with Condorcet become 
quite the other world. I owe to the work, as yet unpublished, of a graduate student at 
Harvard, Gerald J P Grurnan, M.D., now engaged on a historical study of ideas on what 
he calls "prolongevity" a really extraordinary parallel with Christianity: according to 
Dr. Gruman, the full implication of Condorcef s work is nothing less than corporeal 
individual immortality here on this earth, eternal life in this flesh, for everybody, an 
eschatological concept indeed. 

22 Diderot, Refutation d'Helvitius in Oeuvres completes, ed. by J. Ass6zat, Paris, 
Garner, 1875, Vol. II. 


The Age of Reason 

century, the whole moral outlook it summarizes is the work of the eighteenth, 
and in one form or another permeates the writings of most eighteenth-century 
moralists. Helvetius and Bentham give a good cross section, though it should 
be noted that the famous phrase "greatest good of the greatest number" origi- 
nates in the On Crimes and Punishments (1764) of the Italian philosophe 
Beccaria. The systematist classifying ethical ideas has, of course, to list a 
broad group as hedonist, and, as always when his groups are broad enough, 
finds the ancient Greeks start the line. But eighteenth-century hedonism in its 
utilitarian form is by no means identical with Epicureanism. The eighteenth- 
century attitude was widely held among the many of the newly enlightened, 
but the Epicureans were few and aristocratic; the eighteenth-century attitude 
could base itself on a naturalistic rationalism that, again in contrast to that 
of the Greco-Roman world, was widely held, and, in addition, supported by 
the new faith in natural science; finally, the eighteenth-century attitude was 
optimistic, even messianic, that of the original Epicureans resigned, cosmi- 
cally pessimistic. 

Briefly, the utilitarianism of the eighteenth century starts out with the 
basic assumption that human beings are endowed by "nature" with the suit- 
able physiological equipment to guide their conduct in such a way that they 
can do what is right and avoid what is wrong. But "right" and "wrong" are, 
especially to Bentham, words stained by Christian and other erroneous no- 
tions about human nature. We had better remove the stain by saying that 
men "naturally" seek pleasure and avoid pain, and that if they do so unim- 
peded by such fantastic notions as that there is a God who has prescribed 
otherwise, that suffering is here on earth a passport to eternal bliss in another 
world, that many kinds of pleasure are in fact wicked, instead of merely not 
useful, and so on, each man will, by maximizing his own pleasures and mini- 
mizing his own pains, so conduct himself that society as a whole will achieve 
the "greatest good of the greatest number." 

We may note briefly here that from the eighteenth century on for, as we 
have seen, that century was indeed multanimous in these matters critics 
have found the attitude thus baldly outlined wicked, oversimple, above all, an 
invitation to human beings to wallow in self-indulgence disastrous to them- 
selves and others. As held by a Helvetius, a Bentham, utilitarianism of the 
eighteenth-century sort must offend the Christian, not so much because the 
actual conduct that the philosophes found pleasurable and therefore useful 
and therefore good is very different from what the Christian approves, but 
because these eighteenth-century thinkers reject the Christian theology and 


A History of Western Morals 

cosmology, and do so vigorously. We must eventually come to grips rather 
more closely with the problem of what if any differences in human conduct 
appear to result from or merely accompany the differing ethical bases of 
Christianity and Enlightenment. Here I prefer to call attention to the closeness 
of the actual content of Christian ideas of the good and the ideas of the good 
held by such very articulate anti-Christians as were many of the eighteenth- 
century utilitarians. 

Those sovereign masters of men pleasure and pain combine to repeat a 
good deal of the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. Is there 
pleasure in fornication? Yes, but in the felicific calculus of Bentham and his 
followers the pains will in the long run outweigh the pleasures pain from 
awareness of having yielded to low instincts, of having broken a community 
rule, monogamy, that long experience has shown to be socially useful, and 
therefore moral, possible pain of having to provide for a bastard, the likely 
pain, if indulgence is promiscuous, of actual venereal disease. No, the real 
pleasures are the lofty ones, not the swinish ones. The English utilitarians in 
particular were righteously indignant when their Christian opponents made 
against them the old reproach "a hog from the sty of Epicurus." They were 
wholly justified, for anyone who took the trouble to read Bentham's Prin- 
ciples of Morals and Legislation ( 1789) , in which he makes a most elaborate 
classification of pleasures and pains, the famous felicific or hedonistic calcu- 
lus, would note at once that my example above is not unfair: what excep- 
tion made of the theological provisions, such as the first four of the Ten 
Commandments the calculus shows to be useful is substantially what the 
Christian tradition shows to be good. There is here no anticipation of a 
Nietzschean transvaluation of values, no praise of the bright flashing sword 
of the warrior, nor even much hint of social Darwinism to come. The utili- 
tarian would not, of course, encourage the lazy poor; but he would insist that 
by making the pains resultant from laziness greater than the pleasures, you 
could solve the problem of poverty. 23 

The moral values of the eighteenth-century utilitarian, then, were conven- 
tional late Christian, those of the unheroic Christian, not those of the saint, 
not those of the rebel, above all, not those of the mystic. This is the "middle- 
class morality" that we, when young, following our master Bernard Shaw, 

23 The key documents are Bentham's Principles of Morals and Legislation and J. S. 
Mill's compact essay on Utilitarianism. The great critical study is still Elie Halevy, The 
Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. The French are no doubt a bit more fleshy than the 
English, but I think a reader who can struggle through either Helvetius's De I'homme 
or De I'esprit will not feel that Helvetius is advocating a life of sensual self-indulgence, 
or even of Renaissance virttt. 


The Age of Reason 

found so dull, so full of hypocrisy. But in the eighteenth century they were 
the moral values of the fighting radicals; they were a goal to be fought for, and 
attained, an earthly paradise of universal peace, comfort, and rational pleas- 
ure. The utilitarians \vere never quite sure, however, of just how to go about 
reaching the goal. As Halevy pointed out, Bentham himself never clearly 
faced the problem of distinguishing between what Halevy called the "natural 
identification of interests" and the '"artificial identification of interests." The 
basic assumption of the utilitarians, as, indeed, of all but a few of the thinkers 
of the Enlightenment, was that something inside each individual if it is al- 
lowed to work as it was designed to work would guide his conduct to moral 
goodness. In utilitarian terms, the individual's rational interest, following the 
felicific calculus, would show him the right path. 

But is the rational interest of each individual always congruous with the 
interest of society as a whole? The English utilitarians, who were determined 
nominalists, would not quite like the term "interest of society," since they 
thought of society as merely a term, dangerous like all such terms, for the 
total number of actual individuals in any organized group. But they gave to 
the old and troublesome problem behind this phrasing, the problem of the 
relation of the individual to the group, about as firm an answer (and surely 
as disputable?) as has ever been given: "The greatest good of the greatest 
number" means precisely what it says when it is attained each individual is 
as happy, has as much realized moral good, as possible, and the utilitarian 
would here insert "therefore" all individuals, or that feigned entity "soci- 
ety," would have as much realized moral good as possible. 

But how was this greatest good of the greatest number to be attained? 
The natural identification of interests might in theory be attained by the way 
of the philosophical anarchist, by leaving each individual absolutely free 
a way not much in favor with the utilitarians; or it might be attained by the 
democratic way of a majority vote, on the assumption that the greatest number 
knows its own greatest good, and that the minority "ought" to consent to 
obey the majority. Toward this solution the utilitarians, and, for the most 
part, all the Enlightened from then on, have been of two minds. It would be 
unjust to them to say that they give this democratic principle mere lip service; 
for one thing, their basic faith and their quite honest sentiments hold that 
common men are potentially good and reasonable. But there arises this nag- 
ging difficulty: How can the many, unaided, make the bootstrap-lift out of 
the morass in which they now are? 

Most clearly to the Enlightened, those children of Newton, one does not 
defy gravity by trying to lift oneself by one's bootstraps. The many, the com- 


A History of Western Morals 

mon men, have to be helped helped, not forced, not frightened. Here enters 
the artificial identification of interests. The man who does not, cannnot, in 
this corrupt world, understand his own true interests must, at least for a 
period of transition, be provided through planned institutions with clear 
rewards (pleasures) and clear punishments (pains) so evident to him that, 
though he would not unaided have thought out for himself the proper "other- 
regarding" action, he can by following his sovereign masters, pain and pleas- 
ure, do the right thing. The Benthamites were in their way enlightened 
despots; they certainly were ingenious planners, social engineers, and on a 
big and thoroughly modern scale. They seem in retrospect to have given more 
attention to the punishments than to the rewards. W. S. Gilbert's libretto for 
the Mikado has immortalized in circles normally not much interested in 
criminology Bentham's effort to devise a punishment to fit the crime, a 
punishment just sufficiently painful to the criminal to outweigh the pleasure 
he had felt, or anticipated, from the crime, and therefore just sufficient to act 
in his mind as a deterrent to future crimes. 

The reader will see at once that even though they distrusted the many too 
much to rely on the natural identification of interests, the utilitarians indeed, 
the whole of the Enlightenment relied even in their plans for the artificial 
identification of interests on universal human rationality. The bait, the in- 
ducements, these shepherds devised for the sheep assumed that the sheep 
were sensible, even rational, animals; the utilitarians were in no sense anti- 
intellectual. The Enlightened could not have accepted either in its Christian 
or in its Freudian form a concept of original sin; something of what the Chris- 
tian calls "sin" was to them careless "error," as it is to scientist and magician, 
the rest "shocking superstition." The death wish would have seemed to them 
sheer nonsense, as it still seems to their twentieth-century followers. Working 
under their formula, the utilitarian-humanitarian-enlightened radicals, as we 
shall shortly note, achieved many concrete reforms, reforms all but the most 
skeptic or the most saintly will call "good" notably, for example, in the 
treatment of just those mentally disturbed persons then called simply the "in- 
sane" whose behavior most clearly contradicted utilitarian rationalism. 
Their Enlightened voice is still strong in the land, still echoes down "Let 
me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." 


We have now with the eighteenth century reached a point of modernity where 
it is difficult to discern a single generally accepted moral ideal, such as the 
Homeric hero or the Renaissance man of virtu. So little, contrary to the hopes 


The Age of Reason 

of just the radical Enlightened we have been studying, dies utterly in our 
history-conscious West. The Age of Enlightenment is indeed short on 
canonized Christian saints, but the Christian ideals remained alive, and in 
Methodism the century produced one of the great Protestant sects. The old 
aristocratic ideal, directly descended from that of the medieval knight, flour- 
ished, especiaUy east of the Elbe. The man of taste, the honnete homme of 
classical moderation, survived far into the century, amused rather than out- 
raged at the new man of feeling, and sharing with such moderate philosopher 
as Montesquieu a sympathy for Greek rather than Christian ideals. The 
philosophe saw himself rather as a fighter for the new ideal than as its 
embodiment, though the intellectual classes, more numerous relatively and 
absolutely then than in the sixteenth century, made of writers like Voltaire, 
Rousseau, Montesquieu, of enlightened rulers like Frederick the Great, or 
even more enlightened public figures, since they were closer to nature, like 
Franklin, culture heroes more firmly enshrined than any of the Renaissance 
had been in their own day. No English intellectual save Newton, who was 
hardly a moralist, figures in such a list. Of Bolingbroke, the nearest English 
analogue to a philosophe, Burke was not long after his death to write the 
damning sentence: Who now reads Bolingbroke? Already that great moral 
myth and reality, the idea of the national character, which we must treat at 
length in the next chapter, was taking shape in the West. 

Yet there is a moral ideal figure that emerges from the Enlightenment. I 
thinV it not unfair to say that for the first time in Western history that ideal is 
the common man idealized, of course. The eighteenth century preferred to 
speak simply of man, I'homme, Mensch. Later critics Taine's embittered 
analysis in the Ancien Regime is an excellent sample have complained that 
this "man" is an especially unreal, "abstract," and therefore dangerous con- 
ception; the philosophes planned their new world for a man who never existed, 
forgetting that real men, creatures of habit and prejudice, infinitely varied in 
character and temperament, and only rarely capable of rational thought, 
could not possibly follow their plans. Such plans for abstract and unreal man 
when they are applied to real men end in a Reign of Terror. Now behind this 
criticism there is one of the great and abiding political and ethical positions 
Western men take, one better stated by Burke than by Taine. This is the 
position, which we may label that of philosophical conservatism, that the 
factors, the variables that count, in any given problem of human relations 
are in real life so infinitely many, so wholly inseparable and unpredictable that 
if the human mind tries to sort them out and take specific measures to change 
any of them, and especially, one of them, then, first, these measures will turn 


A History of Western Morals 

out to have consequences the thinker-planner had never contemplated; 
second, the wider and more extensive the changes planned, the greater will be 
the discrepancy between plans and real consequences; third and this is 
crucial to this philosophic position these unexpected consequences will tend 
to be undesirable ones, to be bad?^ 

Yet to reproach the man of the philosophes with being peculiarly 
abstract and unreal is to miss the point. All the ideals of human conduct we 
have hitherto examined are abstract but real. The men of the eighteenth 
century knew just what they wanted other men and, no doubt, themselves 
to be like. Their ideal figure inherits much from those of the past, but he is 
by no means identical with any of these, nor even a recognizable compound of 
them. For one thing, as we have already noted, this man is potentially, and in 
the real and close future, all men. It is true enough that there is in historical 
Christianity a never wholly suppressed drive to transform all human beings 
into Christians Christians in the heroic, aristocratic sense of the saintly ideal; 
but the drive always petered out, and in the eighteenth century is hardly dis- 
cernible, even in its one major renewal of Christianity, that of Methodism, 
Pietism, and the evangelical movement. 

The ideal man of the Enlightenment owes much to the primitivists; he is 
in part the uncorrupted, sweet simple Child of Nature, innocent of worldly 
vanities, ready with sympathetic tear and rallying smile but read, or at least 
dip into, Beraardin de St. Pierre's Paul and Virginia or Thomas Day's Sand- 
ford and Merton?* But the man of feeling, the man of nature, was only an 
element in the ideal man of the Enlightenment. Deep down in this man there 
was the rebel against all culture, all civilization shall we say, against life? 
whom we shall meet again in the twentieth century. But in the eighteenth 
century this revulsion from the "artificial" of civilized life is no more than a 
dash, a seasoning; there is no touch of fine existentialist despair in this 
optimistic man. 

Indeed, this man is essentially the thinking man, the rational man. His 
feelings, not without help from his adrenal glands, tell him that a duke is an 

-* I simplify unfairly a position Americans for the most part have difficulty under- 
standing at all. Still, the philosophic conservative does apply to human relations the 
Hippocratic "do no harm" use if you must political placebos, but leave the real job 
of curing to nature. This nature is not by any means the nature of the primitivists, the 
romantics, but, rather, the total cultural and institutional heritage of the group. Only 
very wise conservatives, however, allow for the fact that a big part of that heritage in 
the West is the work of the radical, innovating, planning intellect; those medical radi- 
cals the surgeon and the experimental internist are rarely tempted to let ill enough alone. 
25 Both these books were very popular in the nineteenth century a significant fact 
*nd were often reprinted. They are still readily available. 


The Age of Reason 

artificial creation; but his reason tells him the same thing. Head and heart are 
in happy union. They agree on the good life for all, a life that must be good 
for all, since if any are deprived, all are deprived. Virtue and la vertu now 
take on firmly their modern meaning. The Enlightened man, the man of virtue, 
will be honest, kindly, respectful of the rights of others, firm in defense of his 
own, will satisfy normally and sensibly his natural appetites, including, though 
only in the normal and sensible institution of marriage, his sexual appetite. 
He will be a loving but firm parent, a responsible citizen even a "patriot," 
which in eighteenth-century English and French did not mean a nationalist, 
but precisely this perfect Enlightened man of virtue and citizen of the world. 26 
He will be neither rich nor poor, for virtue is impossible at either economic 
extreme; he will not and this is important want to be rich, nor, of course, 
in the perverse Christian sense, want to be poor. And, it goes without saying, 
he will avoid the vices the personal vices of indulgence, gambling, eating or 
drinking to excess, whoring, laziness, the greater vices of vainglorious search 
for power and wealth, cruelty, the magnifying of self at the expense of others. 
Above all, he will put his mind to the mastery of the arts and sciences of this 
great age, and use that mastery in the service of his fellows, that we may all be 
better, and therefore happier or happier, and therefore better, for, like truth 
and beauty, happiness and goodness are nice interchangeable identities. 

Is this a stuffy ideal, a vague and dim ideal clad in fearful cliches, the 
greengrocer's paradise of Robespierre in which no one would have, or want to 
have, much more or much less than three thousand francs a year, parent of 
the even stuffier because more nearly realized Victorian ideal? Is it a long 
dull sermon, its generalities unseasoned by the spice of a real and present hell, 
since hell has been abolished, a sermon all promises and no threats, hardly a 
sermon at all? So it must seem to many of us in a twentieth century that is 
not without constant threats of a real and present hell; so, indeed, it began to 
seem to the Byronic of the next generation. 27 

Yet the ideal did not look like this to the young, the advanced, the bright 
vanguard of the 1780's; to them it had the freshness, the moral compulsive- 

26 It is unfortunate we so often quote Samuel Johnson ''patriotism is the last refuge 
of a scoundrel" without knowing what he really meant He meant, of course, by 
"patriot" the enlightened citizen of the world, not the nationalist patriot Actually 
though many of his admirers will be offended by this statement I think Johnson him- 
self was an English "patriot" in our modern sense of the word. 

27 1 must confess that some of the more smoothly worn phrases of the Enlightenment 
hwnanite, bontt naturelle, Nature and Reason, virtue, Aufklarung, the system of natural 
liberty, and many more grate on me as I read in the eighteenth century the way, in 
the debunking decade of the 1920's, George Babbitt's word "service" used to grate on 
all the young intellectuals. 


A History of Western Morals 

ness, of any active religious faith. For a while, the religion of humanity, too, 
had its crusaders, its martyrs apostles it had never lacked in this century 
of Enlightenment. If now the ideal seems stale, this is partly because any 
religion in the West seems bound to lapse into an inactive state of acceptance 
of irremediable imperfections, into ritual and conformity among the many, 
doubt and conformity among the few, until a new moral rebellion flares up. 
In the West, as I hope to show, what may be called the first, or early orthodox 
church, form of the religion of Enlightenment is democratic nationalism. The 
national state became, in fact, the church visible for the new faith though 
many a believer in the fundamentals of Enlightenment stayed outside the 
church as far as he could, or even joined a heretical sect, Chartist, "positivist," 
pacificist, and the like. Democratic nationalism on the whole has made its 
compromises, and is now an inactive religion, but very much alive. The 
major heretical rebellion against democratic nationalism, Marxist socialism, 
has now, duly organized as a state religion in the Soviet Union, reached in the 
West at least a stage of comparative inactivity as regards its moral ideal, 
though, unfortunately, not in respect to its desire to expand as a church. 

If the ideal of the Enlightenment has lost its first Promethean will to make 
men into more than men, it is still, I repeat, very much alive, is still for most 
of us a guide and an aim. There are still those who would renew the drive 
of the men of 1776 and 1789; there are more who, struck with the enormous 
gap between what Condorcet, for instance, thought the twentieth century 
would be and what it has so far been, would radically alter, or throw over- 
board entirely, the "principles of 1776 and 1789." But for the most part, we 
are good democrats, good nationalists, good believers in progress and in the 
pursuit of happiness, complaining a lot, but not, at bottom, expecting a lot, 
not at any rate, heaven on earth. Ours, in short, is an inactive religion. 


It is inactive, however, in part because so much of what it promised has in 
fact been realized. We must be careful here. To the god-ridden, statistics are 
meaningless, save perhaps in such instances as the parable of the lost sheep. 28 

28 "How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, 
doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that 
which is gone astray?" Matthew 18:12. This parable is a good illustration of the differ- 
ence between what I call an active and what I call an inactive religion which is basi- 
cally a moral difference. I should suppose that during most of Christian history no one 
having cure of souls could have taken the parable as a literal guide to action. In inactive 
periods, a religion has to put the ninety and nine first 


The Age of Reason 

Statistics show that over the last two hundred years all sorts of standards < 
living have gone up. The life span of a twentieth-century American is now , 
least twenty years longer than that of his eighteenth-century ancestor. But 1 
the ardent moralist the question remains: Are those seventy years bett< 
spent than were the fifty years of old? Have we made moral progress? 

By the standards of the eighteenth-century philosophes we at least ha^ 
made some of the sort of betterment of the environment that in their ph 
losophy must lead to a better life here on earth. The "middle-class morality 
that has its origins in this century may well be an inferior sort of morality, bi 
it has in some respects come closer to filling the gap between the ideal and tt 
real, between ethics and conduct, than ever before. For the first time i 
Western history, what we may call the condition of the masses began t 
improve in respect to public order, public health, public manners, the who] 
material side of life. The base line at the beginning of the eighteenth centur 
was certainly low, as a look into social historians like Lecky and Trevelyai 
into the memoirs of the period, into the Beggar's Opera of Gay or the Gi 
Alley of Hogarth will show for England, one of the more advanced nation! 
But we may perhaps best start with a passage from Aldous Huxley, a write 
not inclined to glorify the present at the expense of the past. 

Such, then, was the kind of world in which the new parson had been brought up- 
a world in which the traditional sexual taboos lay very lightly on the ignorar 
and poverty-stricken majority and not too heavily upon their betters; a worl 
where duchesses joked like Juliet's nurse and the conversation of great ladies wa 
a nastier and stupider echo of the Wife of Bath's; where a man of means and goo 
social standing could (if he were not squeamish in the matter of dirt and lice 
satisfy his appetites almost ad libitum; and where, even among the cultivated an 
the thoughtful, the teachings of religion were taken for the most part in a rathe 
Pickwickian sense, so that the gulf between theory and overt behavior, though 
little narrower than in the mediaeval Ages of Faith, was yet sufficiently enoi 
mous. 29 

By the end of the eighteenth century there was surely some justification f o 

2 The Devils of Loudun, London, Chatto & Windus, 1952, p. 14. It must, however, b 
pointed out that even in the late seventeenth century the beginnings of the moden 
middle-class version of Puritan morality are clear in writers like Defoe and Bunyan, i 
German Pietism, in French Jansenism. In our modern world, not even "trends" are t 
be taken as neat entities. The witty, irresponsible Restoration playwright already feai 
the respectable: 

*To gain your Favour, we your Rules Obey, 

And Treat you with a Moral Piece to Day; 

So Moral, we're afraid 'twill Damn the Play." 

Sir John Vanbrugh, Complete Works, London, The Nonesuch Press, 1927, Vol. n, i 
156. From the 'The False Friend," first performed in 1702. 


A History of Western Morals 

the concept of "progress." In the great field of technological control of our 
material surroundings, the Industrial Revolution had well begun, the statistical 
curves were turning upward, gross national product, real incomes, and the rest 
all increasing, and, on the whole, the working class as well as the middle 
class was benefiting from a rising standard of living. Even in the early eight- 
eenth century, signs of this material progress were clear: the Industrial 
Revolution does not come out of the blue. 30 By the early nineteenth century 
the humanitarian movement had begun to achieve concrete results. Slavery 
was abolished in the British dominions in 1807, after a long and very modern 
campaign by abolitionist groups inspired chiefly by that Christian adaptation 
of humanitarianism known as the evangelical movement. The French Jacobins 
set up briefly and on paper something that looks like the modern welfare 
state; by no means all these reforms were abandoned in the subsequent 
reaction. Even the much-attacked Speenhamland system of poor relief in 
England, whereby doles from local authorities were paid for home use to 
make up for inadequate wages, was in accord with the spirit of the age. Later 
historians were shocked at the system because it corrupted the poor, dis- 
couraged initiative, and kept wages down; we may see the system as permis- 
sive, kindly at bottom, and inspired by a number of motives, some of which 
were consonant with the Enlightenment. 

There is before the eighteenth century not much feeling of sympathy for 
the convicted criminal. There is admiration for the conspicuous and dramatic 
criminal, yet I think it clear that what we here call "humanitarian" thought 
and feeling are hardly discernible in these centuries. And the severity of 
penalties, the horrors of prison life, are well known. The eighteenth century 
saw a fully developed humanitarian-utilitarian theory of criminology, best 
summarized in Beccaria's Crimes and Punishments, one of the clearest 
examples that books do work in this world; it saw in many lands a beginning 
of improvement in actual physical conditions of prisons, and, even more 
conspicuously, it saw the gradual abandonment of enforcement of the old 
dire penalties for petty crimes still on the statute books. 

d It is clear that the view of the Industrial Revolution as one long and unrelieved tale 
of man's inhumanity to man as exemplified in the work of economic historians like 
the Hammonds is no longer tenable. It would seem quite impossible for the popula- 
tion of Western Europe to have increased as it did had the purely physical conditions 
of life for the masses been worse than in earlier times. The moral effect of the factory 
system is another problem, to which I shall return in the next chapter. The English 
Labour Party intellectuals one of the most powerful of Enlightened sects have long 
held that the Industrial Revolution was a work of iniquity. See the representative work 
of J. L. and Barbara Hammond, The Town Labourer, new impression, New York, 
Longmans, Green, 1920; and for a corrective, T. S. Ashton, The Industrial Revolution, 
New York, Oxford University Press, 1948. 


The Age of Reason 

One phase of this development is an admirable illustration of how the 
world view of the Enlightenment worked through humanitarian and utilitarian 
values to alter Christian ethical attitudes. Christian theology condemned 
suicide as a sin, morally a form of murder, since God alone could rightfully 
end the sojourn of a soul on this earth; Christian society had made suicide a 
crime, punishable by burial of the body outside consecrated cemeteries, trans- 
fixed by stakes, at a crossroads. Christian pervasive moral sentiments had 
made suicide a serious disgrace for the family of the guilty person, a painful 
one to bear. Now the Enlightened if enlightened enough simply denied 
there was a soul or a God, denied what I have called the minimal Christian 
puritanism of the body-soul relation. Suicide was to the fully enlightened 
neither a sin nor a crime, but entirely a matter for the individual to decide. It 
should certainly carry no disgrace to the suicide's family, who were entirely 
innocent. It was not even, in view of its rarity and the certainty that it would 
never be common, harmful to the common good. Indeed, Beccaria makes a 
comparison, characteristic of the utilitarian moral attitude, between the emi- 
grant and the suicide. Both leave their country, but neither of them in num- 
bers large enough to do any harm. The emigrant may by his labor benefit the 
rival country; the suicide does not and therefore is even less a criminal than 
the emigrant. 31 It should be noted, however, that in mid-twentieth century, 
suicide is still a grave disgrace for the family in all but very advanced circles. 

So, too, long after the orthodox Christian view that insanity is actually 
possession by demons really has almost disappeared, is mental illness. The 
illness of the soul or psyche or central nervous system many of us still find 
disgraceful, a matter for guilt, as we do not find illness of the body. Yet the 
eighteenth-century thinkers were clear in this matter. Here the humanitarian 
and the rationalist strands were interwoven to produce a new attitude toward 
the mentally ill. The rationalist could not believe the insane were possessed 
of demons; the humanitarian could not believe the insane were perversely 
guilty and therefore to be held responsible for their actions. The old harsh 
ways of exorcising the demons by whipping, the easy way of chaining the 
insane up, the horrid way of putting them on exhibition in "Bedlams" all 
this came to seem absurd and wrong to the Enlightened. Gradually, under the 
leadership of physicians and a new thing research psychologists, most of 
them French, there arose the concept of mental illness, and of therapeutic 
treatment. By 1800, the best opinion had long since given up harsh and 
punitive treatment, had given up the feeling that somehow mental illness is 

31 An Essay on Crimes and Punishments, trans, from the Italian, London, 1770, pp. 


A History of Western Morals 

the patient's fault in a way that ordinary somatic illness is not. 32 The general 
public was still far behind the experts in this respect, but widespread deliber- 
ate cruelty toward the insane had ceased to be normal in the West. 

The guillotine itself, that instrument of the Terror, was an invention 
inspired by humanitarian motives. Dr. Guillotin sought a way to bring death 
quickly and surely to criminals condemned to capital punishment. You may 
build a good deal of symbolism around the guillotine and its successors right 
down to the kindly lethal gas chamber. We kill, we avenge, we protect society, 
we recognize in the deed something not quite consonant with the Enlighten- 
ment, something that goes better with Dante than with Bentham but we kill 
as gently as we can. I do not think there is in the past of Western civilization 
any exact precedent for the institution of the guillotine. The humanitarian 
temperament crops up as far back as we can go; the humanitarian institution 
is new. 33 

It is permissible perhaps even for us in mid-twentieth century to believe 
that rising standards of comfort and literacy and security, the ubiquitous moral 
preaching the Enlightenment loved so much, the contagion of fashion for de- 
cency, respectability, humanite had some effect on the conduct of men in the 
eighteenth century. The effect is not statistically measurable; but surely is it 
not at least possible that the familiar adage about smoke and fire may apply to 
virtues as well as to vices? We shall, however, return to this topic with the 
Victorian middle-class morality of the next century, the classic case. That 
morality was as yet no more than building up in the eighteenth century. 

Moreover, even among the upper classes conduct in the eighteenth century 
in the West is hardly as bad as the moralists preparing for the French Revolu- 

32 The Victorian Samuel Butler in his Utopia, Erewhon (1872), has illness of any sort 
punished by imprisonment, and crimes treated by hospitahzation. This bright idea is 
no doubt chiefly inspired by an intellectual attitude common among intellectuals, an 
attitude with important moral consequences, the attitude that the polar opposite of 
what is commonly believed must be right; but it is also in part a logical conclusion from 
the eighteenth-century dogma of the natural goodness of man, coupled with a belief 
in individual free will. 

33 1 have no more than sampled in abolition of slavery, lessening of harsh penalties in 
criminal law, gentler treatment of the insane, what is really a vast range of eighteenth- 
century humanitarian reforms. I refer the reader once more to McCloy, The Humani- 
tarian Movement in Eighteenth-Century France, for a full treatment for at least one 
country. Note that actual material, technological progress of all sorts, progress of the 
kind many twentieth-century Americans think of as limited to their own point in space 
and time, had by 1800 brought widespread improvements in material production and 
distribution; the common man was, in fact, beginning to have it better, if not to be 
better. But does, perhaps, the second follow from the first? So, at least, the Enlighten- 
ment believed. 


The Age of Reason 

tion have made out. The French aristocracy itself was a society open to the 
rich, the clever, the interesting sometimes to the charlatan a society cer- 
tainly not puritanical, though there were puritanical Jansenist circles in it, a 
society that cultivated the usual vices, that liked witty irreverence, that no 
doubt had too much leisure, too few responsibilities. Yet only very devout 
French republican historians, and their followers abroad, have been able to 
make out this aristocracy as cruel, heartless, or even, as Western aristocracies 
go, morally very lax. Throughout the privileged upper classes in the West, 
already nationally differentiated, there were many converts to the Enlighten- 
ment, landlords seeking to improve the lot of their tenants, men of feeling, 
earnest students of the new ideas. The salon, typical social institution of the 
age, was surely the most serious-minded gathering of the sort yet to appear, 
Lafayette, a portent, if not a type, reminds one much more of the Gracchi 
than of the Augusti. 

In respect to conventional morality, the lowest point of the century was 
the "Thermidorean reaction" immediately after the fall of Robespierre in 
France. 34 Here for a few years, until Napoleon promoted respectability in 
private life and regularity in public life, there was one of those almost mass 
revulsions from the high standards of private and public virtue the radical 
revolutionists seek to impose, a revulsion not unlike that of the English 
Restoration of 1660. The French danced, gambled, consumed conspicuously 
and in bad taste, and, of course, had fun in bed. The historian of morals 
cannot claim to understand the dynamics of such periods of looseness, but he 
can recognize the phenomenon as a particular phase of his history. So, too, 
with the phase from which the Thermidorean reactions themselves are a 
reaction, the phase particularly clear in our great modern revolutions since 
Luther's, clearest of all in the French Jacobin Republic of Virtue and its 
accompanying Reign of Terror: the historian still can but record these ac- 
cesses of collective virtue. 

Indeed, to many the Terror is the most immoral thing in the eighteenth 
century. Quantitatively it had perhaps 20,000 victims in a population of 

34 1 am considering only relatively large groups in making such a generalization. You 
can find individuals a Sade, for instance of surpassing wickedness of conduct; and 
you can find all sorts of smaller groups, all sorts of specific places, where sin was open 
and serious. For the first, the immediate circle of the Regent, the Due d'Orleans, in 
France immediately after the death of Louis XIV (1715) will do as a sample; Orleans 
was bright, witty, corrupt, self-indulgent, yet, in a general political way, well-meaning. 
For the second, the city of Venice will do, already in the eighteenth century what we 
call a tourist center, a ville de plaisir, indeed, where the facts of life really were close 
to what good English evangelicals thought they were on the Continent. 


A History of Western Morals 

about twenty-two million the Terror cannot compete with any good modern 
war, or with the Nazi attack on the Jews. But it was a series of religious 
persecutions, its victims sacrificed to a religion of humanity that makes a poor 
screen for such deeds. The Terrorists had mixed motives, and their Terror 
was no simple thing. But one element, without which the Terror would not 
have been what it was in fact, was the effort to force millions of men and 
women to conduct themselves as the ethics of the Enlightenment prescribed. 
Reason unreasonably proved to be quite as jealous a god as old Jehovah had 
ever been. 

The Terror was brief, but coming as it did in a land in the forefront of the 
Enlightenment, after the shining and universal hopes of 1789, accompanied 
and followed as it was by a great World War, it was a shock, and made an 
epoch. "Mankind has always made this earth a Hell when it has sought to 
make it a Heaven," wrote the German poet Friedrich Holderlin poet, not 
historian, for the French Revolution was surely the first attempt to make this 
earth a heaven for all. The attempt still goes on, as it went on all through the 
nineteenth century; for the rest of this study we must grapple with the prob- 
lems set by the attempt. But the spiritual atmosphere of the attempt has never 
been the same since 1792-1794; the new religion has never quite caught again 
the first incredible rapture of hope of 1776 and 1789. Its major heresy, Marx- 
ism, was born in hate and great disgust. Nor has the intellectual atmosphere 
ever again been quite the same as it was when Wordsworth cried out his 

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive 
But to be young was very Heaven. 

The natural science that played so large a part in building up the world view 
of the Enlightenment has in its still-incomplete and imperfect application to 
the study of human nature in the behavioral sciences almost wholly under- 
mined the fundamental dogma of the Enlightenment, the natural goodness 
and/or reasonableness of man. That dogma is now at best a Sorelian myth for 
all but the truest of true believers; for many today it is a dangerous falsehood. 
But to this topic, too, we must return. 


The Nineteenth Century 

WITH THE NINETEENTH CENTURY we are fuU in the floodstream of contempo- 
rary Western life. It is quite possible that the range of human conduct, the 
varieties of human conceptions of the universe, the sheer multanimity of men 
were as wide during the great years of the Roman Empire as in our own day. 
It is even possible that the limits of human variation within Western culture 
were set long ago in the ancient Near East. But for the historian the important 
fact is that so much of the record of human activities for the last two or three 
centuries has survived physically. With widespread literacy, relatively inex- 
pensive printing and illustrating, with the newspaper and the periodical press* 
all flourishing by 1800, the historian of ideas, the social historian, the his- 
torian of morals, all are confronted with far more source material than they 
can ever hope to exhaust. 1 

Yet all this complexity is no more than the working out of what had come 
to a head in the Enlightenment. Metaphors are never quite perfect tools of 
analysis. Here that of seed-sprout-growth misleads, for the "plants" we are 
dealing with in this kind of history crossbreed in quite impossible ways. You 
might think of a vast musical composition, the plan and certainly the author- 
ship of which no one really understands. The themes are, however, stated by 
1789, and what follows has been development, wild orchestration, frequent 

1 Our twentieth-century trivia will not survive so long, thanks to the invention of 
cheap wood pulp. Indeed, the "yellow journals" of the late nineteenth century have 
already faded beyond yellow into disintegration, and the cheesecake and the gow that 
shock on our newsstands will not survive to shock our descendants. But the good rag 
paper of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries preserves everything. 


A History of Western Morals 

recapitulation, occasional harmonies, some whopping dissonances. More con- 
ventionally, we are still in a "period," still best put as modern or contempo- 
rary, which can be said to begin roughly with the eighteenth century; much 
has been new since then, in science and technology, in art and in all our 
culture, but nothing as new "across the board," nothing as fundamentally 
revolutionary, as the challenge the world view of the Enlightenment let us 
symbolize it as the Newtonian world-machine set to the world view of 
Christianity let us symbolize that by the concept of Father, Son, and Holy 
Ghost. 2 


For the historian of morals, the most important development of the nineteenth 
century is nationalism. The nation-state came to be the societal frame, the 
"church," or organized group of true believers, within which the new world 
view of the Enlightenment took on rituals, emotional satisfactions, gave to the 
faithful a sense of belonging to an identifiable group, brought the difficult 
abstractions with which this science-born, indeed physics-born, cosmology 
had clothed itself right down to earth. Humanity, mankind, all men, the uni- 
versalist and cosmopolitan ideals dear to the theorists of the Enlightenment 
turned out for most men to be unable to bear the earthly weight all ideals have 
to bear when they get to work among ordinary people. Only a minority of 
intellectuals has been able to maintain, unchurched, so to speak, the pure 
religion of humanity; and they keep trying to find themselves a church that 
will be truly universal. 

We need not here attempt to go into the development of Western national- 
ism in most of its aspects, nor, above all, to worry over the exact definition of 
what common language, common "race," common institutions, common 
history, and much else we shall hold to be essential to constitute this 
particular in-group, the modern "sovereign" territorial nation-state. 3 So far, 

2 1 do not find Arnold Toynbee's "post-modern" for the years since 1914 or 1875 a 
useful concept. I think he makes use of the term to persuade us that the world view of 
the eighteenth-century Enlightenment is dead, bankrupt, which better and more clear- 
sighted Christians than he know is not so. We will need more than another general 
war to start a new "period" in Western history. See Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of 
History, abridgement of Vols. I-VI, D C. Somervell, London, Oxford University Press, 
1946, p. 39. For a most interesting periodization. see C. S. Lewis, De Descnptione T em- 
porium, Cambridge, England, Cambridge University Press, 1955. 

3 Boyd C. Shafer, Nationalism: Myth and Reality, New York, Harcourt, Brace, 1955. 
With Shafer as a start, the reader can go on into this very important subject from the 
leads he offers. 


The Nineteenth Century 

at least, there is a clear condition for achieved nationalism: the nation must 
be "independent" or "sovereign," not subject to formal political control, nor 
to too obvious informal political and economic control, by any organized 
group outside its borders. The Russians do claim that they have succeeded 
within the Soviet Union in providing full cultural independence for national 
groups while merging them all in a common political and economic federal 
union. In most of the West, however, those who feel that "consciousness of 
kind" that makes a familiar loose definition of nationality are content with 
nothing less than "independence" and at least the minimum symbolic evidence 
flag, diplomatic recognition, armed forces, rituals, and the rest that goes 
with independence. 

Morally, membership in a nation means that the individual shares what 
the English essayist Arthur Glutton-Brock, who did not like nationalism, 
called "pooled self-esteem"; and such membership satisfies, in part, and for 
many who could not otherwise satisfy it, the agonistic drive for triumph so 
characteristic of the West satisfies it in a sense vicariously, but quite con- 
cretely. The nation, even the very large nation, makes a fine outlet for the 
team spirit, the better just because such participation is vicarious. I recall a 
public lecture at the Sorbonne in 1920, after victory had brought back to 
France the iron ore of Lorraine. The lecturer, using big units or ratios the 
exact nature and size of which I forget, came out at one point with some such 
figures as these: French iron production in 1914, 9 units, German production, 
20 units; French iron production in 1920, 14 units, German production, 9 
units. The audience, which was composed of the kind of people who go to 
such academic "extension" lectures, burst into loud applause at this point. 
It seems highly unlikely that anyone in the audience stood to gain directly in 
the way the economist measures gain from this increase in French national 
production of pig iron. In fact, the comparison with football scores is sug- 
gested by much more than the mere figures. Here were people, in psycholog- 
ical slang, identifying with France, the France of the "Marseillaise," the 
tricolor, France, mere des arts, des armes, et des lots and pig-iron pro- 

It is surely impossible even for those who find terms like "religion of 
nationalism" misleading, inexact, or simply offensive, to deny that the indi- 
vidual does have this emotional relation to the common thing, that much of 
the hymns, symbols, and public ceremonies of the nation-state at least sug- 
gest religious ritual, and that there are national holy writings, declarations, 


A History of Western Morals 

bills of rights, consecrated orations by a Webster, a Danton, a Farewell 
Address, other pronunciamentos, that are comparable to canonical writings 
in recognized religions. There are clearly national saints Washington, Lin- 
coln, Lenin and those near-saints, the culture heroes Shakespeare, Dante, 
Goethe. 4 But, those who reject the analogy with recognized religions ask, 
where is your armature of theology, eschatology, ethics, all essential to a true 
religion? The answer is partly, of course, that nationalism is clearly not a 
theistic religion, and if you so define religion as to make a theos and a supra- 
natural view of the cosmos the essential mark of a religion, you must abandon 
the analogy between religion and nationalism. You will, however, have 
thereby abandoned a useful tool for understanding human conduct. 

I prefer to retain the analogy with accepted religions, and suggest that, 
first, many organized Christian churches have contrived very well to adapt 
themselves to nationalistic beliefs, so that to many individuals the need for a 
supranatural faith has proved quite congruous with ardent participation in 
the nationalist common thing. The range of actual adjustment between Chris- 
tianity and nationalism has been great indeed. The great gateway of "render 
therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things 
that are God's" has proved a wide one, no mere loophole. Very little, it has 
sometimes seemed, of pure earthly concern is left as God's. The freethinkers 
in 1914, when the Great War really did surprise the world, gloated over the 
fact that the Germans and the British in particular were each vocally assured 
that the one true Christian (Protestant) God was firmly on their side. But the 
freethinkers themselves, heirs of eighteenth-century cosmopolitan belief in 
the equality of all men before nature, were of divided allegiance. German 

4 On the worship of Lincoln, see Ralph Gabriel, The Course of American Democratic 
Thought, New York, Ronald Press, 1940; on the worship of Washington, see Marcus 
Cunliffe, George Washington: Man and Monument, Boston, Little Brown, 1958, es- 
pecially Chap. I, 'The Monument"; on the French Jacobin ritual and worship see my 
Jacobins, Chap. IV. Note that both Mt. Vernon and the restored Kentucky cabin where 
Lincoln was born are almost always known as "shrines," to which "pilgrimages" are 
made. I have often had the irreverent thought that no one has yet filled out our Trinity 
unless the American Constitution will do. Neither Jefferson nor either of the two 
Roosevelts has made the pantheon, in spite of efforts of their ardent admirers to get 
them in. But Washington remote godhead and Lincoln warm, human, both god 
and man are safely enshrined. I think it true that the British have not made use of 
these same forms of nation worship to the extent the Americans and the French have 
done; theirs are older, and more assimilated into Christian forms. I do not think, how- 
ever, that from the point of view of a rigorous Christian idealist the British are less 
idolatrous than are we or the French. 


The Nineteenth Century 

socialists and French socialists, sure that God does not exist, were quite as 
sure that the nation does. 5 

Even more important, however, nationalism in itself or, rather, each 
specific nationalism did to a degree incorporate much of eighteenth-century 
thought, which, as I have insisted in the previous chapter, is a full cosmology, 
or world view. The ordinary nineteenth-century Frenchman, the Englishman, 
the American, even the German "believed in" self-government and a degree, 
at least, of democracy, believed in Progress, took part in the pursuit of 
happiness, hoped for some, at least, of that heaven on earth the eighteenth 
century had promised them and felt, thought of, political activity, in which 
as citizen he played a part, as one way, perhaps the way, of attaining that 
heaven. It should hardly be necessary to point out that no medieval commoner 
expected anything of the sort out of "politics." The good citizen ought, of 
course, to be a good man. Except in regard to relations among sovereign 
states even here, formally, professedly modern nationalism took over con- 
ventional Western moral codes, Christian and Enlightened, in various mix- 
tures. The French bon rfyublicain, who was a great preacher and moralizer, 
never tired of trying to teach through nice little manuals of what we should 
call civics a sound lay utilitarian morality of love and help-thy-neighbor. 6 

The critics and enemies of nationalism and they are many among West* 
ern intellectuals in the twentieth century hold that as the "real if unavowed" 
religion of most of the West (Toynbee) it encourages the individual to indulge 
in infinite hopes and fears, and does little to discipline him into accepting 
earthly limitations, that it feeds his more ignoble side, starves his nobler 
possibilities. Now since, as I have argued, nationalism is the most important 
of successful forms of organized belief or church which the new cosmology of 
the eighteenth century takes in our world, it is not wholly unfair to attack 
under the name of nationalism that cosmology itself. But what most of these 
attackers, including Mr. Toynbee, are really getting at behind nationalism in 
their attack is the whole world view of the Enlightenment. 7 

5 1 suppose that generally in the West the freethinkers in 1914 tended to side with the 
Western allies, for the Central Powers stood as symbols of "autocracy," France and 
England (with the dubious inclusion of Russia) for "democracy." Free thought, as heir 
of the Enlightenment, has tended to side with democracy and to oppose absolutism, 
and has also thought of England-France as the Palestine of the new faith. For the ex- 
tremists, now, Moscow is the Rome. 

H F. V A Aulard, Elements d'instniction civique suivis de resumes et questionnaires. 
Cours Moyen, Paris, E. Comely, 1902. 

7 In many ways the frankest and clearest of these attacks is still the work of the late 
Irving Babbitt, and especially the Democracy and Leadership (Boston, Houghton 


A History of Western Morals 

Few today put the central moral issue between Christianity and Enlighten- 
ment as baldly as the eighteenth century, even the seventeenth, often put it: 
Is the ultimate sanction of a supranatural God and perhaps even a supranat- 
ural hell necessary to insure that men conduct themselves in society with a 
minimal degree of decency? The eighteenth century debated this question 
earnestly, and came often to the conclusion that the outright atheist at least 
is a dangerous influence, that the common man cannot stand the undermin- 
ing moral example the atheist affords. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries, 
however, were to quiet that particular debate. In spite of the undoubted 
spread, not so much of sheer atheism as of effective reduction of the areas of 
human experience in which the supranatural or the transcendental could seem 
real and pressing, the level of conventional morality in the West has clearly 
not been lowered. The Victorian outlook, to which we shall come shortly, is 
in itself evidence that the old supranaturalism and the new naturalism can be 
combined into a way of life that certainly is no new Sodom and Gomorrah. 

I thinV it can be maintained, however, that the paling for many, and the 
disappearance for some, of the orthodox Christian world view, the substitu- 
tion for Christendom as church of the national commonweal as church, has 
for the believer meant a real loss. Christianity would seem to be, even in 
comparison with other higher religions, the most consoling of faiths, the faith 
that, not so much by the aspect the freethinkers love to deride, its heavenly 
reward in an afterlife for suffering here on earth, as by the ritual, the ministry 
of the cure of souls, the long experience of the human soul (or psyche if you 
are an anti-Christian), can steady the individual in his misfortune. Marianne 
of the French Republic is a lively and charming lady, whom we all know from 
the cartoonists' sketches; but she is no substitute for Our Lady of Sorrows. 
Nationalism has its surrogates for the saints; but not even Abraham Lincoln 
seems to fit into prayer. The patriotic rituals, the hymns, the oaths, the exer- 
cises, even when all these are very deliberately heightened as in Nazi Ger- 
many, even when the faithful take them seriously, are at best substitutes for 

MifHin, 1924), and the Rousseau and Romanticism (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1919). 
The American "new conservatives" have echoed this attack, which takes as its central 
point that what came out of the eighteenth century call it nationalism, romanticism, 
democracy, humanitarianism, even, in the United States, "liberalism" prods human 
desires but does not satisfy them, puts no limit, no discipline, no end to them, denies 
the basic fact of human life, that men want and need restraints, limits, boundaries, 
want to know them and feel them as such; they do not really want to be infinitely free, 
expansive, aggressive; their nature, their composition, to use a materialistic term, is 
not able to stand Enlightenment. 


The Nineteenth Century 

the revivalist side of Christianity; they do not sound through the pains and 
boredoms of daily life. My parallel above between French-German iron pro- 
duction and football scores was not wholly superficial. Nationalism is fine 
when our team is winning, but there is no joy left when it loses, and precious 
little consolation. 

The moral indignation many men of good will feel in the twentieth cen- 
tury toward nationalism is centered not so much on its lack of consoling 
power as on the fact that in theory and in practice the nation as guided by 
its rulers is subject to no higher law. In international relations, say the critics, 
though lip service is duly paid to concepts of right and wrong, naturalistic or 
supranaturalistic, we really are in a situation where might makes right crudely 
and simply, where all that counts is success in beating the other fellow, where, 
as time goes on, even the old conventional rules of the horrid game of war, 
such as formal declaration of war, Geneva convention on prisoners of war, 
and the like, are cynically flouted. 8 To many men of good will, the great moral 
evil of our time is war; and war in our time, they hold, is made the shocking 
thing it is by the complex of human relations we call "nationalism." Many of 
them, led by Mr. Toynbee, are in effect saying of the nation-state what Vol- 
taire said of the Roman Catholic Church ecrasez I'infame, "crush the in- 
famous thing." 

Combined as it is with the threat of the fusion bomb, biological warfare, 
and many other fearful threats, the fact of modem nationalism is most cer- 
tainly one of the major problems the moralist faces today, and we shall return 
to it. Here we may content ourselves with trying to put nationalism into its 
proper historical perspective by asking the obvious question: Is the compo- 
nent added to international politics by the cosmology of the Enlightenment as 
what we call "nationalism" of such innovating importance that it makes a 
radically new situation? 

The answer is, I think, no. There has long been debate over why men 
organized in groups kill, maim, imprison men organized in other groups in 
what we call warfare, and over the right and wrongs of warfare, ultimately 

8 Lip service is, of course, a kind of tribute; but our conscience even as nationalists does 
bite deeper than the prophets of doom allow. The famous toast of Stephen Decatur at 
Norfolk, Virginia, in 1816, "Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may 
she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong," admits a difference be- 
tween right and wrong, shows, as a matter of fact, a conscience at least faintly dis- 
turbed. I do not think you will find in the early days formulas like "Athena, may she 
always be in the right, but . . ." or "Jehovah, right or wrong!" The ardent nationalist 
today realizes he is on the defensive. The familiar quotation from Decatur will be found 
in almost any dictionary of quotations. 


A History of Western Morals 

as to whether it is an evil or a good. 9 As a matter of fact, we shall in the very 
next section of this chapter take up one of the sharpest and most novel phases 
of the intellectual history of the warfare over warfare, that brought to a head 
by the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859. The anthropologists 
leave us in no doubt as to the fact that, in spite of the noble savages who 
practice hospitality toward the stranger, many, if not most, territorial in- 
groups will fight with others. And here another piece of folk wisdom obtrudes 
itself: "All's fair in love [that is, male Western pursuit of female] and war." 
We must be clear on this matter: the morality, or immorality, of organized 
warfare is no new thing. 

The historian of the West can leave no doubt as to the empirical facts. 
From the days of Homer and Moses on, even from much earlier, warfare has 
been endemic in the West. There have been variations in the material and 
human damage war does, in the extent to which war has been in effect regu- 
lated by law, convention, the "rules of the game," by notions of what is right 
and wrong in warfare. But, as with most of these variations in history, the 
sorting out of the variables, the plotting of the curves, is a difficult and often 
impossible task. A glance at the account Thucydides gives of the violence at 
Corcyra that got the Peloponnesian War off to its worst phases should con- 
vince anyone that, weapons apart, there is precedent for all the moral horrors 
of our contemporary warfare. 

Certainly from a survey of war in the West one cannot conclude that the 
human, the moral, elements that enter into warfare vary in any one sure 
direction, forward or backward. Two tendencies which, if they could be firmly 
established as such, are worth noting as possibly valid analyses may be sug- 
gested. First, wars that enlist the active emotions of the many, that employ 
the many as actual fighters, tend to be more ferocious, above all, harder to 
settle with a tolerable peace, than wars fought by the few, the professionals. 
Modern democratic nationalist wars are "worse" wars than the "limited" 
wars among eighteenth-century dynasts, but they are not the first or the only 
wars that have so enlisted the emotions of the many. Second, and closely 
related, wars we used to label "ideological," wars fought to make the true 
God, or dialectical materialism, or the Nordic myth prevail over unbelievers 
are worse wars than wars say, like our Mexican War which are wars of 

9 Here is a fine bit of Hegel: "Just as the movement of the ocean prevents the corrup- 
tion which would be the result of perpetual calm, so by war people escape the cor- 
ruption which would be occasioned by a continuous or eternal peace." Philosophic 
des Rechts, 324. Such a sentiment is clearly that a sentiment, not to be disproved, 
but simply disapproved. 


The Nineteenth Century 

mere aggression with a minimum gloss of moral justification. Both these ideas 
are suggestive as leads for further study, a study not assured in the beginning; 
that they would prove true. They are, however, by no means the assured 
truths they seem to be to many of our contemporary proponents of a brand- 
new international order. And even if they are diagnostically true, we have 
surely no ready remedy at hand. 

On one count, at least, the Enlightenment can be cleared of responsibility 
for one of the moral weaknesses of nationalism. The doctrine that the agents 
of the state in their dealings with agents of other states are not held to the 
rules of ordinary morality, indeed not held to any moral code, but are con- 
cerned solely with the success of their states in war and diplomacy is no in- 
vention of the eighteenth century; it is, indeed, specifically opposed by most 
of the philosophes. As we have noted, in its specific modern form of the 
doctrine of "reason of state," it is well formulated in the sixteenth and 
seventeenth centuries and well practiced. At least in the sense of accepted 
formal obligations to a growing body of international law, the eighteenth and 
nineteenth centuries in the West saw a comparatively good period in the 
morality of international politics. There has been, no doubt, an obvious lapse 
in the last twenty years, but one scarcely attributable directly to the Enlight- 

It seems hardly possible for even the most extreme nominalist to deny 
that the "nation" that gives us so much trouble is real, that differences in 
language, art, the whole reach of culture among nations are real. There are 
moral differences among the nations of the West, nothing like as great as the 
convinced nationalists think they are, and like other aspects of the national 
character, difficult of definition, almost impossible of statistical definition. 
Most Anglo-Saxons believe that the French in particular are loose, promiscu- 
ous, in the matter of sex; and it must be admitted that many articulate French- 
men do their verbal best, and sometimes more, to give support to that belief. 
Yet any one who knows the French knows well that the actual range of 
conduct in such matters is probably much the same as elsewhere in the West, 
and he knows that many Frenchmen are chaste and continent. The Russians 
since the Bolshevik revolution have done their puritanical best to banish the 
familar traditional outward and public allurements and display of sex, much 
as in other outbreaks of puritanism, or rather Vulgarpuritanismus, in Savona- 
rola's Florence, in Cromwell's England, in Robespierre's France and they 
have held the line longer than most of their predecessors. On the other hand, 
in twentieth-century America the mass media concentrate with increasing 


A History of Western Morals 

frankness on all that used to be known here as "sex appeal." Our rare Sovie 
visitors are apparently as shocked at one of our newsstands as our grand- 
fathers used to be at Parisian ones. 

We are back at one of the unsolved puzzles that confront tLe historian oi 
morals: Just what is the relation between profession and performance, be- 
tween word and deed? Even in the comparatively simple matter of sex rela- 
tions, no firm answer can be given. I feel very sure that the Russians have 
not risen above sex, and equally sure that we have not sunk as Mr. Sorokin 
holds we have into obsessive indulgence, both direct and vicarious, in mat- 
ters of sex. The Russian moral style has for a surprisingly long time been out 
of line with Western, if not with human, traditions in such matters; someday 
cheesecake and gow will come to Russia. Our own in the United States has in 
the last generation or two, perhaps, as liberals think, under the pressure of 
selfish commercial interests, but more likely from a whole syndrome of causes, 
including what may well be called Vulgdrfreudismus, been out of line with 
our own traditions, and may be expected to return at least part way back to 
the old restraints. 

But we cannot here allow ourselves to get involved in the concrete facts 
and the fascinating theories of the national character. They are worth all the 
careful study they can be given, for they are real even when they are part of 
a myth, above all, when they are part of a myth. We may content ourselves 
here with a few general cautions. First, each nation has an image of itself, 
slowly built up and hard to change, and images of other nations with which 
it has relations close enough to permit the building up of such images. Where 
specifically moral elements enter into these images, they are bound to be 
greatly simplified and exaggerated, and, it goes without saying, tend to reflect 
moral credit on one's own nation, moral discredit on others. Yet the enemies 
of nationalism go too far if they pursue the line set by the definition of 
nationalism as "pooled self-esteem" to the point where they maintain that 
the nation as an entity or, if you prefer, national public opinion is wholly 
incapable of self-criticism. To drop in